Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective

, by SARKIN Jeremy

Generally speaking, those incarcerated in African prisons face years of confinement in often cramped and dirty quarters, with insufficient food allocations, inadequate hygiene, and little or no clothing or other amenities. While these conditions are not uniform throughout the continent, their prevalence raises concern and needs to be addressed through prison reform and attention to human rights. Moreover, there are also several barriers—including state secrecy, weak civil society, and lack of public interest—that inhibit the collection of reliable data on African prisons. 1 This veil of ignorance as to prison conditions merely fuels the neglect and abuse of Africa’s incarcerated. It is nonetheless imperative to investigate African prisons and generate information about the issues affecting the continent’s penal system. 2

The article outlines several key historical developments in the evolution of African prisons. It examines certain areas in which prisons throughout Africa fail to meet the minimum of human rights requirements. Recognizing that Africa is home to 53 countries of profound diversity, several common themes of human rights abuse nonetheless emerge upon continental examination, including the shortcomings of resources and good prison governance; overcrowding and poor conditions within prisons; the failure to protect the rights of pre-trial detainees, women, and children; the untapped potential of alternative sentencing; and the unfulfilled mandate of rehabilitation. The article then considers several possible sources for oversight and reform, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as the Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa.

It is clear that African prisons face a host of challenges, including deficits of good governance, funding, and other resources. Such shortcomings have resulted in overcrowded and otherwise abusive prison conditions. Yet it is also clear that several governments and organizations have committed themselves to improving the lot of Africa’s incarcerated by promoting prisoners’ rights. As a result, Africa is home to several innovative instruments and institutions aimed at protecting the rights of those behind bars. What is needed now is the political will and resources to translate these pronouncements into practice.