Human Rights in
African Prisons

Jeremy Sarkin, Editor
(Ohio University Press)
If you plan to go on a rampage, don't do it in Belarus, Bermuda, or Russia. Next to one other country, they have the highest confinement rate in the world --- 532 per 100,000 national population. The accepted places for you to go ballistic are Switzerland, Northern Ireland, and Bulgaria. Each of them has sported a drop in prison population over the last two years and a half.

By all means, keep your nose clean in the United States. It has the highest confinement rate in the world --- 714 per 100,000. And if you are black, and in trouble, and live in the USA ... by some means or another get yourself deported to some place else. African-Americans are but 13% of the population in America but make up over 48% of the adults in prison.

If you are a woman, and plan to do bad, don't do it in Hong Kong, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, or Kuwait. Over 15% of their prison population is female. In many countries, the editor points out, the penalty for "abortion or procuring an abortion" can carry a life sentence. Practicing witchcraft could get you into a bunch of trouble under Kikuyu law, and can still do so in modern Zambia. A 2005 New York Times article reported that "food is so scarce in Zambia's jails that gangs wield it as an instrument of power."

As far as being vaut le voyage, editor Sarkin says that the worst prisons are not necessarily in Africa but in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia:

    Most prisons suffer from massive overcrowding, decaying infrastructure, a lack of medical care, guard-on-prisoner abuse, corruption and prisoner-on-prisoner violence.

"Malnutrition and a lack of hygiene and medical care cause many deaths in these prisons."

The editor starts off the book with pure facts:

    One out of every 700 people in the world is in prison; ... the world's prison population stands at over 9 million. The continent of Africa is home to 53 countries, roughly 3,000 prisons, and approximately 1 million prisoners.

Ten researchers have contributed to this volume. The most interesting chapters are the "Overview" by Sarkin and Stephen Peté's "History of Human Rights in the Prisons of Africa." Here we learn that prisons did not exist until the arrival of slavery and foreign rule. Before 1800, if you did wrong, under Kikuyu law, "nine goats had to be paid for adultery or rape, and one hundred sheep or ten cows for homicide."

    The rate of compensation did not change with the wealth or age of the victim and was not affected by the intention or motive of the killer.

"The purpose of the compensation was to restore the equilibrium of society."

"The family of the offender could be held collectively liable to pay compensation to the victim." When the British or French began to emphasize punishment and lack of concern for the victim, there was "great dissatisfaction" among Africans. Under earlier law, death or exile "was used only in response to crimes which threatened the safety of the community."

Prison may be bad, and make you mad, but there may be worse things. Sharla Sebejan of South Africa said that the result of killing her abusive husband was an improvement of the treatment she got at home:

    In this insane hell-hole, where I share a cell with thirty-five other women, I have actually found a little haven, for the hardships, suffering and emotional abuse I now undergo is nothing compared to living with my husband --- being too afraid to talk, eat or even smile, being constantly crippled with fear that I might be doing something wrong, for which I'd get a beating and thrown out of the house to spend the night in the car.

--- Lolita Lark
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