10 November 2012

Tanzania: Radical Reforms Necessary to Prisons


THE two famous statesmen had similar sentiments when referring to prison conditions. The first one, Sir Winston Churchill, then British Home Minister, said: "The mood and temper of the public with regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country."

But the famous prisoner who happened to be the first Black President of a Democratic South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela, puts it very clearly that " no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats highest citizens, but its lowest."

Indeed that is a reality. I was touched last week when the Parliament was tied up in an argument as to the number of meals a prisoner is entitled to. Whether it is two or three meals a day, it does not matter but what is important is the quality of that food. It was reported, according to the archaic Prisons Regulations of 1968 Sect. 23(1), the breakfast is of 450gms of which 150gms is porridge and 300gms bites, while 500gms is for dinner!

By the look at the grams consumed and the language of bites might appear to give a picture that prisoners are having the best of it. How do you expect a person to have a half a kilo for his dinner? Is that feasible? The Tanzania Human Rights Report 2007 on Prisons by the Legal and Human Rights Centre reported on inadequacy of food and medical services and that the government, according to then Minister of Home Affairs Mr Chiligati confirmed that on average, one prisoner spends Tanzania Shillings 2,500 per day!

What kind of food is that? Of late there have been a lot of suggestions coming from different quarters on improvement of the prisons' conditions! Once this paper wrote an editorial on the radical reforms required in our penal institutions. Several members of parliament this year made their voices on how to salvage the prison service which seems to receive a raw deal when it comes to radicalising the system.

It is disheartening to hear from government officials that prisons are not places for enjoyment but are of punishment. That does not augur well with the spirit of rehabilitation and social reintegration. The prison environment is supposed to be conducive to a human habitation panacea for rehabilitation and social reintegration.

It should be known that offenders are sent to prison as a punishment and not for punishment and therefore prison environment must be safe and humane and as close as possible to conditions in the community. Prison is that component of criminal justice system which has the greatest impact on the freedoms, liberties and rights of individuals.

Therefore members of Prison Service involved in corrections must respect fundamental human rights in every aspect of their work and must be guided by a belief in fairness and equality under and before the law. After all, it is a prohibition of our Constitution Article 13(6)(e) which reads, "no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading punishment, or treatment."

The punishment is awarded by the court of law by depriving offender's freedom they enjoy by isolating them from their families to the prisons and is not a question of the prison authority to punish them again. Suggesting that prison is not a place of enjoyment amounts to endorsing the prison authority to punish offenders and that would make President Mandela to remember his incarceration days which he has vowed not to remember!

As hinted earlier, for this year Prisons had received wide coverage in the press emanating from members of parliament. Just recently the question of conjugal visitation resurfaced again. Conjugal visit is not a bad idea but is it a priority right now? Undoubtedly the correctional fraternity has longsince valued the preservation of stable family and community ties as part of rehabilitation and social reintegration of offenders.

Community support system is a vital element in the successful transition of offenders from incarceration back into community. Arguably, the most important correctional tool to assist offenders in maintaining stable family relations is a visitation programme that allows for meaningful interaction with the significant persons in their lives.

Visitation privileges have been linked to increased positive adjustment while incarcerated and lower recidivism rates upon release. While many developed countries have adopted conjugal visitation programmes to further promote family relations however, it has not been found that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and financial cost to prison administrators, families of offenders and community.

What is the pressing need right now for the Prisons Service? The solution to the rising rate of crime in this country could not be solved by constructing more prisons. Rather, it should be solved by introducing appropriate rehabilitation programmes to offenders that are targeted to addressing their reoffending attitudes. Minister Emmanuel Nchimbi has pronounced it more than often that we need to deal with the reduction of recidivism which is currently running between 30% and 35%.

Reduction of recidivism will contribute to reduction of congestion in our prisons, promoting public safety by intelligently and scientifically managing crime. Our members of parliament and other interested parties should convince the government to come up with radical reforms for prisons that will pave the way for the paradigm shift of running prisons. Crime is a problem and politicians are responsible to offer solutions for this problem.

If nothing else is offered, criminal law and the prison system may become the primary shield against crime and violators of human rights. We need our prisons to contribute to the public safety and have offenders to really be addressed of their offending attitudes through effective interventions.

We need a new Prisons National Policy that will spearhead the radical prisons reforms and not the ongoing cosmetic reforms which serve as window dressing!

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