Beyond the walls – part 2

A row of prison cells
A row of prison cells (Photo credit: Matthew Ansley)

A GEM chronicle

Arrests and jail sentences can throw a mother’s entire life into disarray, and she must not be burdened with other responsibilities as the situation already puts her mental health in jeopardy. Women who find themselves in this predicament are not only in despair about what the future holds – how to get true justice, their menstrual hygiene issues, what to eat – but also how to secure food and healthcare for their children behind those walls.

If no other measures for keeping these children with relatives can be made, then government should create an exceptional welfare scheme that includes shelters for these children outside the prison. These children must be given an equal opportunity to grow in a holistic environment far from the walls of prison yards.

Before you chuckle, may we all be reminded that not everyone in prison is a murderer, kidnapper, rapist or has committed treason; and not all behind bars are criminals. Poverty and other inequalities have been the root-cause of many people ending up in prison. The prison could be anyone’s new home at the slightest twist of fate.

A woman I met in jail had stolen a bag of corn from a farmer she had worked for, simply because the farmer refused to pay her for services rendered. A bag of corn cost about GH¢150 (app J$3,800) at the time. She ended up in prison because she couldn’t raise the money to pay her fine. I can vividly recollect another woman who worked for DHL, whose story I managed to follow until she was set free, but not before she had served seven out of her ten-year sentence. She was treated unfairly, and her story travelled around the country quickly.

Another woman, who suffered from a hernia, complained bitterly about her inability to raise funds for her surgery while in prison. Her crime; they had found weed/marijuana belonging to her boyfriend in her possession.

Statistically, women commit fewer crimes than men. According to the Ghana prisons home page, only 188 women have been incarcerated across the seven prisons in the country as compared to 15,015 male inmates as at 2015. Out of the 188 inmates, 36 are un-convicted. The majority of these cases are misdemeanours. Since most women do not have financial power, or access to legal aid and services, they are sentenced or remanded in prison without a hearing. A country that boldly engraves the motto ‘Freedom and Justice’ under the shield of its coat of arms must ensure access to justice for all and provide timely legal aid services to needy women at the nation’s expense, as prescribed by government.

Even though there are more men in prison than women, prison sentences affect women differently from how they affect men. Prison sentences for women affect society in general; sentencing a woman to prison indirectly sentences her dependents. If a man goes to jail, his children hardly end up on the street or in prison with him because women hold the fort. But a woman either goes to prison with her toddler or that child ends up on the street.

It would therefore be in the interest of children for government to explore alternative options to incarceration. These options would reduce cost of keeping prisoners, save taxpayers’ money and strengthen family systems, among others. Women offenders convicted for minor misdemeanours can be sentenced to community service.

Where the crime deserves a full prison term, their health and other needs must be considered. All women have special needs, and so do women in prison. It is imperative that they are provided with all the requisite facilities with reference to their special needs such as: pregnancy, childbirth, sanitary health care and rehabilitation. They should be granted  equal access to work, vocational training and education as male prisoners. The women in prison should also be given proper transformative education and recreational opportunities so that they can stay sane, be reformed to effect societal change; rather than being broken and destroyed by the time they make it out of jail.

Government should ensure that there is uniformity in laws or standards relating to prisons specifically addressing gender-related needs; revisit prison manuals and introduce provisions that cater for women as well as children with incarcerated mothers.

Let us all continue to question our government, policymakers and regulators – and hold all accountable. Let us all intensify the dialogue about the plight of people in prison, with a special light on women in prisons. Let us all be bold enough to defend, forever, the cause of freedom and of women’s rights.

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