Incarceration in Africa

The New York Times had an excellent, fairly long piece of reporting today on the situation in many (or most?) of the prisons in Africa. (Also here.) Michael Wines, who wrote it, focuses much of his attention on the situation in one prison in Lilongwe, Malawi– his dateline. But the article also has some other more general info about the terrible state of people caught in the carceral system elsewhere in Africa:

    This is life in Malawi’s high-security prisons, Dickens in the tropics, places of cruel, but hardly unusual punishment. Prosecutors, judges, even prison wardens agree that conditions are unbearable, confinements intolerably long, justice scandalously uneven.
    But by African standards, Malawi is not the worst place to do time. For many of Africa’s one million prison inmates, conditions are equally unspeakable – or more so.
    The inhumanity of African prisons is a shame that hides in plain sight. Black Beach Prison in Equatorial Guinea is notorious for torture. Food is so scarce in Zambia’s jails that gangs wield it as an instrument of power. Congo’s prisons have housed children as young as 8. Kenyan prisoners perish from easily curable diseases like gastroenteritis.
    When the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights last visited the Central African Republic’s prisons in 2000, it heard that officers had deemed 50 prisoners incorrigible. Then, dispensing with trials, they executed them.
    Even the African Commission’s special representative for inmates has not visited an African prison in 18 months. There is no money, said the representative, Vera Chirwa, a democracy activist who herself spent 12 years in Malawi jails under a dictatorship.
    “The conditions are almost the same,” Ms. Chirwa said. “In Malawi, in South Africa, in Mozambique, in almost every country I have visited. I’ve been to France, and I’ve seen the prisons there. In Africa, they would be hotels.”

Anyone who’s ever read Foucault should understand there’s an intimate connection between “modernity” and the practice of large-scale incarceration. Incarceration, I would add, is an extremely expensive option for societies to choose. In the classic model of it, prisoners are totally removed from society and therefore have to be fed, housed, and clothed by the government. Because they are removed from productive labor, and becauise they are generally able-bodied men of breadwinning age, the incarceration of one individual can result in up to ten family members losing their main means of support… Large-scale incarceration has bad enough longterm social and economic effects in a country like the US, where there are currently more than two million people incarcerated, and a further million employed in guarding them. Imagine what a burden a policy of incarceration places on a very low-income country in Africa…
I first started reflecting deeply on this subject about five years ago, when I learned that in Rwanda, the main policy the government had chosen in order to deal with the aftermath of the 1994 genocide had been one of detaining and incarcerating suspects– and that at that point more than 130,000 of that country’s 7.5 million or so people were still, six years after the end of the genocide, festering in their prisons with only a tiny number of them ever having seen the inside of a courtroom. (If you want to read my really long Boston Review article on that subject, you can find it here.)
When I was working on that article– and later, when I went to Rwanda to check out the situation for myself– I became very impressed with the work being done in several African countries by a small NGO called Penal Reform International. Michael Wines quotes the Malawi-based regional director of Penal Reform International, Marie-Dominique Parent, as saying: “Most African governments spend little on justice, and what little is spent goes mostly to the police and courts… Prisons are at the bottom of the heap.”
He also notes this very disturbing relationship:

    Paradoxically, democracy’s advent has catalyzed the problems of Africa’s prisons. Freedom has permitted lawlessness, newly empowered citizens have demanded order – and governments have delivered.
    Malawi’s prison population has more than doubled since the dictatorship ended in 1994. But its justice system is so badly broken that it is hard to know where to begin repairs…

So what is the answer? To urge governments in Africa to spend more on their prisons and court systems? Or to urge them to find alternatives to incarceration as the main “punishment of choice” in their societies.
I would say: both. But especially, given that the prison systems in most of those countries are in such a rudimentary and inhumane condition, western aid donors should be looking to explore and support the upgrading of the widest possible kinds of alternatives. I mean, there is no particular reason that “modernity” always has to come fully equipped with large prison systems, is there? And at least, in Africa, in most countries there are still some fairly robust indigenous justice and conflict-resolution mechanisms that could be conserved, modernized, and upgraded.
… Anyway, I’m glad that Michael Wines wrote that piece, and that the NYT gave it such a lot of space. So often, liberals in the US think that all that’s needed for people in low-income countries is that we should export all our own kinds of instituions there and then everything would be great. But at the same time we here in the US know that there are a lot of things terribly wrong with our own, ultra-punitive criminal-justice system. So why on earth would we want to export that to anyone? What we should do instead is proactively go out to identify, and seek to strengthen, a whole range of alternatives.

One thought on “Incarceration in Africa

  1. peterv

    >Africa’s one million prison inmates
    Geez, a whole 1 million. Must be many fewer in ‘the land of the free’.

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