Independent UN Expert Urges Ghana to Re-Think Criminal Justice, Mental Health Practices

An independent United Nations human rights expert today voiced deep concern about the situation of overcrowding in prisons in Ghana which is leading to other rights violations such as poor hygiene and risk of diseases.

"The overcrowding rate in some places that I visited is easily between 200 to 500 per cent," the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez said, as he concluded his first official visit to the West African nation.

"Overcrowding gives rise to other human rights violations such as poor quality and quantity of food, poor hygiene, lack of adequate sleeping accommodation, insufficient air ventilation, a high risk of contamination of diseases, as well as very limited access to medical treatment, recreational activities or work opportunities," Mr. Méndez said in a news release.

"These conditions constitute in themselves a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," stressed the expert.

Mr. Méndez came across and documented a clear case of caning used as a disciplinary measure against several youth at the Senior Correctional Centre in the capital, Accra, the only facility dedicated to juveniles.

"I have urged the authorities to conduct an immediate independent and impartial inquiry to establish accountability for this serious act of torture against children," he said.

He urged the Government to urgently ratify and implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture which will, among other things, allow a national system of regular prison monitoring by independent experts.

Noting that family visits from children under the age of 18 are not allowed in the Ghanaian prisons, the expert said that denial of visits by children constitutes "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment not only of the inmates but of the children as well."

He said the Government should reconsider this issue, which is not resource dependent and could go a long way to help the mental state of inmates, in particular of female prisoners with small children.

Family visits, he pointed out, are an issue of survival in detention facilities throughout Ghana. "Inmates told me they are dependent on their families to bring them medicines," he said. "If transferred to a prison far from the family, inmates may not receive additional food or medicine."

During his eight-day mission, the Special Rapporteur also visited two prayer camps north of Cape Coast. "I saw patients chained to the floor or walls of their cells or chained or tied to trees for prolonged periods of time," said the expert.

The practice of shackling is alleged to be due to the risk of escape or the aggressive behaviour of some patients. "Many of the patients say they have been shackled for extensive periods of time, from a number of months to several years."

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

Mr. Méndez will present a country report with his observations and recommendations to the Council's next session in March 2014.