My statement to ‘Manager,’ was simple and innocent! “I am going to prison on Wednesday!” Her response was aggressive. “What? What did you say? You are going to prison? For what? Why?”
I immediately realised that I had inadvertently put myself in the firing line of ‘Manager,’ the unintended consequences of my miscommunication, or not communicating effectively! For a retired English teacher, ‘Manager’ took me for what I said, and not how I thought she should understand a statement I thought was brief, straightforward and harmless.
I, therefore, beat a hasty retreat saying “O, I meant I will be going with the Men’s Fellowship of my church to Nsawam Prison on a visit on Wednesday, as you know we do from time to time”.
On Wednesday, May 17, 2023, the Men’s Fellowship of the Garrison-Methodist Church (GMPC) Burma Camp paid our eleventh visit to our adopted “Condemned Block/Cell” that houses inmates on death-row at the Nsawam Medium Security Prisons.
Nsawam Prison became operational in 1960 after construction work started in 1956. In 1970, the female prison was added. The facility was originally built to hold 850 prisoners. However, we were told there were over three thousand inmates at the time of our visit.
More recently in 2011, a Maximum Security Prison was built at Ankaful, near Cape Coast.
Our team from GMPC was led by the Director-General of Religious Affairs for the Ghana Armed Forces, Commodore (Cdre) Paul Adjei-Djan, the president of the Men’s Fellowship Mr Ransford Obo, and the Vice-President Col. Daniel Mensah-Gorman.
After the initial welcome and pleasantries outside the prison by the chaplain of the prison, Rev. Padi, we went through the main gate and after physical security checks, we were ushered to the office of the Regional Director of Prisons. After formally welcoming us, the Director, Mr Kwaku Ababio Ali, went with us to the condemned block to meet the 169 inmates.
There was a short sermon interspersed with music by the Condemned Cell Choir. The text was from John Chapter 3, verse 16: “For God so loved the world that, He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life”.
Cdre Adjei-Djan emphasised the word “whosoever,” and asked the death-row inmates to trust in God, as “whosoever” includes them.
The choir expressed appreciation for the organ our Men’s Fellowship presented them during our Christmas visit to them in December 2022.
Following a request they made during the December 2022 visit, the Men’s Fellowship presented them this time with a Musical Combo Mixer. We also presented them with bottled water, soft drinks and food.
In spite of the lively atmosphere of music and singing, the eyes of most of the inmates told a different story. Having been on death row for so long, many of them appear to have given up on life!
For them, it is a day at a time as they do not know when they would face the hangman’s noose at the gallows. However, since 1993, no condemned cell inmate has been executed.
On a feeding allowance of GH¢1.80 per inmate per day, the quality of meals for the inmates can be imagined. Their congested accommodation, to say the least, is inhumane. Generally, six of them are crammed into a cell. In a particular cell however, 17 inmates were crammed in. One understands the term “condemned cell” better, seeing what passes for their accommodation.
Prisons vrs correctional
In a chat with the officers, it came out that the continued use of the word “prison” as it was inherited from the colonialists at independence in 1957, and hence “Prison Service” was anachronistic and retrogressive.
It connoted retributive justice for offenders. Many countries which have benefited from training by Ghanaian Prison officers have changed the term “Prison” to “Correctional”.
In line with modern trends, offenders are supposed to be reformed and reintegrated back into society, hence the term correctional. However, in Ghana’s case, because we still cling to the old idea of punishing the offender, some of them come out after finishing their term more hardened criminals than they were at the first offence.
The officers also said in spite of the efforts of the Prison Service to teach and equip inmates with skills to enable them to reintegrate into society, not much prominence is given the Service. Here, they were suggested to, to take the initiative in educating the public on radio/TV about their role in society and what contributions they make.
Additionally, because society stigmatises ex-convicts and does not welcome them back after their term, re-offending and going back to prison, recidivism, is not uncommon.
Sixty-six years after independence, a simple statement I made that, “I am going to prison on Wednesday” elicited the strong response it did from ‘Manager!’ To her, as it is to many Ghanaians, it is taboo because of the impression that, the prison is for bad incorrigible people! And yet good people find themselves there.
The Prison officers themselves were shocked when for the first time, a gentleman was sent there for six weeks ostensibly for a road traffic violation!
Meanwhile, those who deserve to be there strut about confidently! As a friend put it rather sadly, “in Ghana, prison is generally for the poor, not for the rich!”
In some Scandinavian countries, offenders live in accommodation which could easily pass for a two-star hotel. Conditions are such that, inmates with basic education are able to study to gain PhDs while serving their term.
While not condoning grave offences such as murder and rape, reform and rehabilitation must have the civilised objective of a correctional facility, and not retributive justice to offenders which appears still to be the norm.
The “condemned block or cell” is an affront to humanity. Perhaps, as a remark was made, “death is better than the condemned cell”.
The Ghana Prisons Service is encouraged to mount a public relations exercise to educate Ghanaians on their role. Educational tours for students might help in the fight against drugs!
Perhaps, a visit to Nsawam Prison, particularly the “Condemned Cell/Block” by our MPs might be educative and beneficial. In Scandinavia, prisons have been closed for lack of offenders! So, why do we have congested prisons? What is wrong with our society? How about the many remand cases for which accused/suspects spend years in prison waiting for trial?
Finally, “I returned from prison” six hours after leaving Burma Camp, and safely back home to “Manager” an hour later! Leadership, lead!
Fellow Ghanaians, wake up!
The writer is former CEO, African Peace Support Trainers Association, Kenya & Council Chairman, Family Health University College, Ghana.