african prison via ventures africa

It’s Time to Reform Africa’s Broken Criminal Justice System

In his book Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the panopticon prison, a model first proposed by 19th century English social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The prison was designed in a circular pattern around an opaque watchtower that ensured inmates could be watched without them seeing their watchers. The purpose was to create a state of institutional paranoia that would result in control and—presumably— “character” reform. Although this model was rarely built as proposed, several prisons around the world have drawn some inspiration from it. Though neither an architect nor a designer, Bentham was one of the first to highlight the significance of using architectural design and spatial layout as a reformative tool in correctional facilities.


Prison design remains a controversial undertaking for architects around the world. But there has been progress. Some jails, in Europe, are becoming more humane. Institutions such as Halden and Bastoy, in Norway, and Leoben, in Austria, were designed to simulate life outside the prison as much as possible. It’s no coincidence that Norway, which prides itself as having one of the most humane systems in the world, currently has one of the lowest recidivism rates. Virtually no inmate attempts to escape; more than 80-percent of them complete their sentences, never to return again.


Prisoners at Halden prison in Norway have private rooms, which all have a fridge, desk and flat-screen TV. Inmates who don’t follow the rules and attend classes and counseling are sent to conventional prisons. Photo via NPR.


Sadly, Africa remains stubbornly oblivious to these developments. Most countries are grappling with a severely dysfunctional system, and have for some time. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur in Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa, in 1996, as part of its larger mandate (The Banjul Charter). Unfortunately, nearly two and half decades later, the problem has grown worse.  


African prisons are almost criminally outdated. Many were designed as temporary holding facilities and don’t meet basic spatial and safety requirements for long-term incarceration. And because few new prisons have been built in recent years, the available ones are so crowded that most prisoners sleep on bare floors, usually on their sides. Finding enough space to sleep supinely becomes a luxury. Breeding grounds for violence and disease, the horrible conditions have prompted a series of now all-too-familiar prison breaks. The current architecture of these facilities make escaping from them easy; the living conditions make that a plausible option for nearly every prisoner.


The frequency of jail breaks in the last twelve months alone is frightening. Last May, seventy-three prisoners escaped from the Kasangulu prisons in Democratic Republic of Congo. A much larger and terrifying incident occurred a few days later, when a secessionist rebel group broke into the central prison in Kinshasa, the country’s capital, and freed as many as 4000 prisoners. Five months later about one hundred prisoners broke out of the Katiola prisons in Central Ivory Coast. In December, forty prison inmates, in broad daylight, broke out of Ikot Ekpene prisons, in South-South Nigeria, after breaking down a door with an axe. These incidences are but a few, and don’t include the countless others that were covered up by state authorities.


The idea of incarceration, as a form of punishment, was not popular in traditional pre-colonial African societies. Each local community had its peculiar criminal justice system, one largely built around its local customs and traditions (customary laws). Serious criminals were often executed, ostracized or exiled. For petty crimes, like theft, the accused was typically subjected to communal naming and shaming, or compelled to pay fines to the community and make restitutions to his/her victim. For this reason, most pre-colonial communities had no real need for prisons. Most prisons in use on the continent today were originally built by colonialists to hold freedom fighters and dissidents who opposed their rule. Since the advent of independence across the continent, few new prisons have been built. Worse still, the even larger population of inmates who are awaiting trial outnumbers those already convicted. That percentage in Nigeria, for instance, is at least 70-percent.


Our deplorable prisons accomplish the very opposite of their intended purpose, creating more crime, more prisoners and further instability. They’re a moral stain as well.


Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot of sympathy for inmates. Most Africans believe that appalling jail conditions are part of the prisoners’ penance for the crimes that they’ve committed. I prefer to think about it more holistically. Redesigning our prisons isn’t just an ethical or moral imperative—it’s a practical one. Our deplorable prisons accomplish the very opposite of their intended purpose, creating more crime, more prisoners and further instability. They’re a moral stain as well. “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” Nelson Mandela once said. “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”


Even though the the underlying problem here isn’t architectural, architects must still add their voices to the growing calls for prison reforms across the continent. The grinding realities of our broken criminal justice system, a continent-wide problem, could be at least partially ameliorated by designing and building more humane prisons. Prisons that are sited in appropriate locations and offer inmates access to basic human necessities, such as daylight, nature, clean and efficient waste systems, even a decent bed. Places that inmates wouldn’t feel compelled to escape from, and might eventually leave with a better chance at never returning again.


Features image via African Ventures.


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