Prison overpopulation and congestion is a major problem facing Africa’s Prison facilities. Several factors do and continue to contribute to the high prison populations such as increasing crime rates due to population growth, poverty, legislative and policy loopholes such as those which do not create room for alternative sentencing and a lack of adequate legal aid services for indigent persons.
Although several interventions are being implemented to salvage the situation and solve the problem of prison overcrowding, only a few have succeeded while the issue persists.
In Ghana, the general prison overcrowding rate is 52% according to data from the Ghana Prisons Service as at 2018. Most of the major prison facilities are heavily overcrowded especially the central ones. The Nsawam Medium Security Prison for instance has an original authorized capacity of 815 inmates but currently holds over 3400 inmates, the Kumasi Central Prison facility has an authorized capacity of 900 but currently holds over 1700 inmates. Some major factors contributing to the high numbers include but are not limited to a lack of alternative sentencing mechanism which leads to incarceration of accused persons on very petty or minor offences (misdemeanors), remand prisoners overspending time in prison (some on expired warrants), bureaucratic processes in prosecution, inadequate legal aid services, as well as the other factors stated above.
In 2007, the then Attorney General following several complaints and petitions flooding in from the Ghana Prisons and other stakeholders in the criminal justice sector concerning prison overcrowding swung into action and established the Justice For All Programme (JFAP) which is an intervention scheme that sought to decongest the prisons by reducing the number of people on remand which at the time was a whopping 33% of the total prison population.
The JFAP uses a unique model to decongest Ghana’s prisons by setting up mobile in-prison special courts to adjudicate remand prisoner cases. The advantage of the programme lies in the fact that it bridges the gap which exists between indigents and legal representation. POS Foundation plays a critical role in the facilitation of the programme by providing paralegals who interview, draft and prepare the motions and affidavits (applications) as well as file them and defense lawyers who vet the applications and represent inmates at the special court sittings.
Since its inception, the JFAP has been instrumental in reducing the remand prisoner population from 33% in 2007 to 13% as at November 2018. POS Foundation has been the facilitator of the programme since 2014.
Although the Rules of Court Committee by clause (4) of Article 33 and clause (2) of Article 157 of the 1992 Constitution under CI (1) Order (1) provides that accused persons can represent themselves in court, majority of Ghanaians are not aware of this. The few who are aware of this constitutional right are however not able to exercise or enjoy it due to lack of proper understanding/expertise and capacity on how to go through the process coupled with the fear of losing to an opponent who is represented by a trained or experienced lawyer.
This has led to the continuous incarceration of some accused persons in prison custody either on remand, wrongly convicted (miscarriage of justice) and excessive or harsh sentences without the resources or capacity to hire the services of a lawyer represent themselves in appeal processes further contributing to prison overcrowding.
Notwithstanding the fact that the JFAP has been lauded both nationally and internationally for its success in reducing the remand population significantly, the major criticism has been that it is erroneous to refer to it as a Justice For All Programme when it in fact does not consider the convict population making it seem more like ‘Justice For Some’. Another criticism is that although the remand population has drastically reduced, the convict population maintains a steady growth.
Following a trip to Kenya facilitated by the US Department of Justice Headed by Mrs. Maureen Bassette of the US Embassy where a delegation of stakeholders in the criminal justice sector from Ghana including the Ghana Prisons Service, the Judicial Service, Public Interest Lawyers as well as the Executive Director of POS Foundation Mr. Jonathan Osei Owusu, the In-Prison Paralegal Programme (IPP) under the ‘Ghana Prisons Programme’ was introduced following a similar model as used in Kenya called the African Prisons Project.
The IPP seeks to compliment the JFAP by training inmates and Prison Officers as Paralegals to help write and file appeals for inmates who would like to self-represent themselves in court. The programme which is currently only a pilot will be expanded to cover other prisons after a successful roll out stage. It is currently being funded by the US Department of State.
Two large offices have been made available at the Nsawam Prisons by the Ghana Prison Service which have been renovated, fully furnished and air-conditioned by the POS Foundation.
On this basis, the POS Foundation organized a 3 Day Training Programme to train Prison officers, prison inmates as well as external personnel as paralegals to man the newly established paralegal office at the Nsawam Prison. The Programme which was facilitated by seasoned lawyers equipped the trained personnel with adequate knowledge on how to go through an appeal process from reading and analysing records of proceedings to writing and filing appeals on behalf of convicted inmates. There will however be a continuous training over a span of 3 months for the selected inmates which will be conducted by POS Foundation.