The youngest ‘prisoner’ I ever met was a ten-month-old baby at the Nsawam Female Prison. He was unfortunately partaking in incarceration with his mother. Imagine a ten-month-old toddler locked within the nerve-wracking walls of a prison for days, weeks, months and years with no education or proper socialisation.
As alarming as I thought this should be, the Prison Wardens think it is a favour to the child. To them, being behind the prison walls, away from all civilisation with his mother, for a crime he is too young to comprehend, is better than being in the under-funded Social Welfare Department without a mother. Punishing a crime by unjustly trampling on the rights of another individual is quite an objectionable twist.
We live in a patriarchal society that is quick to throw its felons – and in some situations, simple deviants – into prison without thoughtfully considering the plight or well-being of their dependents.
Sadly, when we mention prisoners only the plight of male prisoners instantaneously comes to mind. Female prisoners remain to a large extent less visible in Ghana, both to the criminal justice system as well as the general public. The conditions women have to withstand within such a highly-gendered and marginalised system is distressing to say the least, but very little is known and/or discussed about the plight of women behind bars in our national discourse. It was against this background that my spirit celebrated seeing the Nsawam Female Prison on the GEM activity calendar.
The night before our monthly Girls Excellence Movement (GEM) outreach to the Nsawam Female Prisons, I filmed a mental picture of what I thought prison could feel or look like. I imagined the jails surrounded by 50-metre high concrete walls with huge iron gates shielded with large metallic rusty bolsters, and about 6 thick, tall security guards in uniform. I pictured 6 of them standing on each side of the gate. One of the guards, dark, hairy, rough-faced, well-built, big feet, muscled arms with large ball-like piercing eyes that could see through the giant walls; and in case anyone attempted an escape, I swore those eyes could haunt them down.
I wondered what the women behind those walls ate. Whether or not they smiled and laughed. I asked if they still menstruate and experience menstrual cramps. I wondered if they played or told jokes to each other at night, just like my Mum and Mama Felicia does when they spend nights together. I was seamlessly carried away by my thoughts, obscured by the fact that these were pint-sized concerns compared to what might be keeping them awake at night; and that once I got behind those four walls there would be more-weighty matters to worry about.
On the day as we loaded our bus, sixteen, seventeen, twenty… I counted the number of boxes of Yazz sanitary pads we had procured from individual donors, the packs of drinks and water that Twellium Foundation had generously donated. Brenda and her team had come in their work-vans, all branded with Rush energy drinks and Twellium Foundation logos.
Quite to my dismay, while we made our way through the small entrance that housed our hosts, there were no rough-faced guards at the entrance. Instead, we were welcomed by female wardens with graceful smiles; those smiles did not in any way denote the ordeals of prisoners.
After a few interactions and observations, three (3) groups of women struck me.
The women who had their children incarcerated with them, pregnant women and younger women. It was frightening to know that while trying to punish an individual for a crime committed, another innocent person had to pay an equal measure for the same crime.
I watched as a mother hurled her baby in jail. The unsanitary and deplorable conditions, the trauma, the displacement, stigma, the abusive practices that might cause physical injuries, health challenges, disrupted family life and the long-term effects this would definitely have on the little boy goes unmentioned.
A boy who seemingly could have started off with a promising future has been forced to spend the early years of his childhood behind thick, impenetrable walls; separating him from the possibilities of life and limiting him only to the realities of life behind those walls. This adorable little boy, one of Ghana’s youngest ‘prisoners’, is probably not the only child in this unfortunate plight; he could be one among many other children who might be in other prisons despite their innocence. And as they grow up, the biggest challenge will be explaining to the children why they live or ever lived in prison. The obvious challenge of reorienting them cannot be overemphasised.
Objectively, why should children be admitted into prisons? I find this act inhumane and unjust.
The dangers associated with nurturing children in prison are peculiar. The prisons are left in ruins. Appropriate amenities for mental, psychological and social growth of a child, educational and recreational facilities required for the proper development of a child are not available in prison. Why should a woman go to prison with a child when two people made that child? Would the father ever go to prison with a child? Even if that father is a single father, do you think society would watch while that child followed the dad into prison? I dare say “No, that will never happen”. Family would come to that man’s rescue and take that child in, since our society seems more sympathetic toward the plight of men when it comes to child care, among other things.
Arrests and jail sentences can throw a mother’s entire life into disarray, and she must not be burdened with other responsibilities as the situation already puts her mental health in jeopardy. Women who find themselves in this predicament are not only in despair about what the future holds, how to get true justice, their menstrual hygiene issues, what to eat; but also how to secure food and healthcare for their children behind those walls.
If no other measures for keeping these children with relatives can be made, then government should create an exceptional welfare scheme that includes shelters for children outside the prison, or include funding for the Social Welfare Department. These children must be given an equal opportunity to grow in a holistic environment far from the walls of prison yards.
Before you chuckle, may we all be reminded that not everyone in prison is a murderer, kidnapper, rapist or has committed treason; and not all behind bars are criminals. Poverty and other inequalities have been the root-cause of many of those people ending up in prison. The prison could be anyone’s new home at the slightest twist.
A woman I met in jail stole a bag of corn from a farmer she worked for, simply because the farmer refused to pay her for services rendered – a bag of corn that cost about GH¢150 at the time. She ended up in prison because she couldn’t raise money to pay her fine. I can vividly recollect another woman who worked for DHL, whose story I managed to follow till she was set free – but not until she had served seven out of her ten-year sentence.
She was treated unfairly, and her story travelled around the country so quickly. It was no surprise that after I got to work one Monday morning, my colleagues were already discussing her ordeal. Another woman who suffered from Hernia complained bitterly about her inability to raise funds for her surgery while in prison; her crime, they found weed/marijuana belonging to her boyfriend in her possession. She’s paying for his crime, yet the man never even visited her in prison.
Statistically, women commit fewer crimes compared to men. According to the Ghana prisons home page, only 188 women have been incarcerated across the 7 prisons in the country as compared to 15,015 male inmates as at 2015. Out of the 188 inmates, 36 are un-convicted. The majority of these cases are misdemeanors. Since most women do not have financial power, or access to legal aid and services, they are sentenced or remanded in prison custody without a hearing. A country that boldly engraves the motto ‘Freedom and Justice’ under the shield of its coat of arms must ensure access to justice for all, and provide timely legal aid services to needy women at the nation’s expense as prescribed by government.
Even though there are more men in prison than women, prison sentences affect women differently from how they affect men. Prison sentences for women affect society in general; sentencing a woman to prison indirectly sentences her dependents. If a man goes to jail, his children hardly end up on the street or in prison with him because women hold the fort; but a woman either goes to prison with her toddler or that child ends up on the street.
Owing to this, it would be in the interest of children that government explores alternative options to incarceration. These options would reduce cost of keeping prisoners, save taxpayers’ money and strengthen family systems, among others. Women offenders convicted for minor misdemeanors can be sentenced to Community Service. They can sweep hospitals and streets or wash dishes at Senior High School pantries rather than go to prison. Probation or Restorative camping can be availed to women caught in prostitution.
Where the crimes deserve full prison terms, their health and other needs must be considered. All Women have special needs, and so do women in prison. It is imperative that they are provided with all the requisite facilities with reference to their special needs: such as pregnancy, child-birth, sanitary health care and rehabilitation – granting them equal access to work, vocational training and education as male prisoners. The women in prison should also be given proper transformative education and recreational opportunities so that they can stay sane, be reformed to effect societal change; rather than being broken and destroyed by the time they make it out of jail. Adequate health facilities should be provided – especially for pregnant prisoners and women suffering from serious medical conditions in prison.
Government should ensure that there is uniformity in laws or standards relating to prisons specifically addressing gender-related needs; revisit prison manuals and introduce provisions that cater for women as well as children with incarcerated mothers.
Let us all continue to question our government, the policymakers and regulators – and hold all accountable. Let us all intensify the dialogue about the plight of people in prison, with a special light on women in prisons. Let us all be bold enough to defend forever the cause of freedom and of women’s rights.