Soloman Attoh shakes his head and sums up his life: “Suffer,” he says, his stormy face puckered with frustration. “Suffer, suffer.”
In 2002, when he was a 21-year-old cab driver, Attoh says he decided to help some men steal some goats. Ghana was still a long way from middle income status and, like most people, he was poor and needed the extra money.
“We were in the process of putting the goats into my taxi when the police came and arrested us for stealing,” he says. “They collected everything from us and we were taken to the police cells. We were taken to the court, and I was given two weeks on remand.”
But two weeks very slowly became eight years. In the Eastern Region’s Nsawam prison, he shared a cell with other people awaiting trial. The guards hurled insults at them and wouldn’t let them use the phone unless they could pay for it.
Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV were met with occasional administrations of expired medicine.
They ate poorly cooked food, and some of them traded sex for bigger rations. They fought over water, struck each other with buckets. Sometimes, one of them would die in the middle of the night.
In March 2010, Attoh was released through a government-sponsored program called Justice for All, never having been to trial. He’s now a thin, persevering man of 30, with scars on his chest and the back of his head. He has no job, and he’s still hungry.
“What I am going through now is very difficult,” he says, “and I think that if I don’t restrain myself and contain my hunger, I will go back to those activities that took me to Nsawam.”
And there’s the rub. Government and non-governmental organizations have been chipping away at Ghana’s remand prisoners disaster. According to the prison service’s 2009 annual report, there was a daily average of 3,767 prisoners in remand that year, a 10 per cent reduction from the year before. In 2010, according to an official from Ghana’s Legal Aid Scheme, there were a total of 1,746.
The problem was rooted in underfunded and poorly resourced government silos, each unable to fulfill the civil liberty provisions of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution.
“Start with the police, for example,” says Isidore Tufuor, a lawyer and supervisor with Access to Justice, the organization that has helped process 400 remand prisoners since 2009. “When it comes to arresting people, they are very swift. Conducting investigations and presenting the person before court for trial, the problem comes up. They tell you the person was arrested in a village; they don’t have any vehicles; no means of transportation. They cannot conduct investigations. They cannot prosecute. So the person is on remand.”
The problem lands at the attorney general’s department, which, without evidence, is unable to form a case. Even if evidence is gathered from an investigation, it can only be analyzed in labs in Accra, meaning some jurisdictions wait years for results.
Suppose a case is ready to go to trial. If a prisoner can’t afford a lawyer, which is often the case, he’ll have to rely on one of the country’s 14 legal aid lawyers — unless he’s in the Upper East or Upper West Regions, where there are no public lawyers, thanks to one death and one promotion.
Those lawyers move enormous caseloads, not all of which go to trial. In 2008, there were 6,200 cases. The following year, there were 6,600. In 2010, there were 7,200.
There’s also the Kafka-esque effect of prisoners showing up in overcrowded courts after they have been on remand for the legal limit of two weeks.
If their cases aren’t heard when court ends, they are reshuffled to their cells, leaving no trace on the next day’s docket and no new remand warrant reissued. In effect, they disappear.
“The person who has stayed the longest was somebody who had been arrested in February 1993, one month after our constitution came into force,” says Legal Aid Scheme director Alhassan Yahyah Seini. “And as of March 2009, he was still in prison without trial, for most of the time without even a valid warrant. He got out early this year.”
Government seems to be responding. It has been bulking up the Legal Aid Scheme’s budget, from $385,318 (Canadian) in 2009 to more than $498,774 in 2011. The legal services sub-budget has climbed from $2,840 in 2009 to more than $10,733 in 2011.
The Justice for All program has dealt with 245 cases, handing out mostly adjournments or declining applications, but also discharges and granting bail, as well as several convictions.
Groups such as Access to Justice play a big role, too.
“It’s a long process,” says Tufuor. “Providing justice to the remand people involves many stakeholders. It puts the entire justice system machinery in motion. From the attorney general’s department, to the police, to the prison service, to the judicial service, to the legal aid board, to the bar associations, to the social welfare department.”
But there’s still a big problem once the men are released. After spending nine years in remand and sleeping in a cell stuffed to three times its capacity, Edward Coffie, 35, is free — and broke.
“Since I came out, I haven’t found any job to do,” he says.
Like Attoh, Coffie’s remand experience was long and traumatic. He wore the same clothes for months. There were 70 of them in a cell designed for 20. When he got sick, the medicine gave him rashes.
Over the years, he watched convicts train to become carpenters and electricians, tailors and mechanics. But he was not a convict, so he couldn’t take part in those programs.
“I only had the sandals and clothing I had on when I was released,” he says. “None of my relatives came to visit me because they had passed away. My only brother has also travelled (moved).”
Attoh is trying to get work with a Christian group that could see him earn $6.00 every day for helping around the church.
Attoh and Coffie have few government programs at their disposal. They’re too old for the National Youth Employment Program. There’s the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty Program, but neither of them is elderly, severely disabled, or a single parent with an orphan or vulnerable child.
“You try to give some rights to a person,” says Tufuor. “You are free. At the same time, there is no social security there. There is nothing. We don’t have any social security policy.
“A human being needs to survive. It’s the first rule of nature. He will commit a crime again.”