Africa and Prison Reform: Using jail to save money and avoid loneliness.

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The former anti-apartheid icon and one of the most respected leaders in this century, Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years of his life in the maximum security prison on the Robben Island, South Africa, once said:

 “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

How true is this about Africa and how does the statement reflect African prison condition and the treatment of its prisoners in general on the continent? For the sake of clarity, the philosophy behind imprisonment is in Africa a misconception – just as the rule of law. Justice in Africa is a mere celebration of injustice and a mockery of the rule of law, hence prison has become a contrast to what it stands for. In a continent where corrupt leaders, politicians, and criminals, who have stolen billions from the State are breathing the air of freedom and enjoying their ill-gotten billions, while the poor lawbreakers are those sent to the jail, the meaning and purpose of jail become a mockery of justice. Naturally, the purpose of imprisonment is to correct as well as prepare the inmates to be better and productive persons in the society after they have left the jail, but in most cases, ex-prisoners are left in a more vulnerable and precarious situation after leaving the jail. The idea of using prison to correct lawbreakers and make them a better person in the society is not only a mere dream but a stillborn in Africa.

In many African countries, prison is the last place any sane human being wants to go. The condition of African prisons is not only disheartening, but it is also simply hell on earth. Prisoners are jam-packed in prisons meant for 5 times fewer inmates. Basic facilities like beds, pillows, mattress, are lacking. Full of rats, cockroaches, and disease-transmitting animals and insects, the health condition of African prisons is a source of concern; nor do inmates have proper medical attention. Access to work, sports facilities, library or even education is a dream for many inmates, dumped and forgotten in various prisons in Africa. That is not all, violence and ill-treatment, including chaining of the prisoners, are still the order of the day. Other inhuman treatments like beatings, electric shocks and other kinds of torture are common in many African prisons.

With an acute shortage of personnel, an overcrowding jail condition coupled with a nonchalant attitude, corruption and inefficiency of the prison services in Africa, gang culture is a huge challenge facing many prisons in Africa. This problem is very rampant in South Africa, where rape and other forms of sexual abuses have turned the prison into a very dangerous place to be.

Ironically, it might sound, though, while many in Africa would do everything humanly possible to avoid going to jail, others, mostly elderly, in a country like Japan would rather do all it takes, including committing a crime – intentionally – to land in jail. Worse still, it becomes a matter of surprise and concern, when the greater percentage of those eager to go to jail in Japan are elderly ones. Yes, elderly ones, who are supposed to be law-abiding; those expected to set a good example in the society. You begin to ask yourself what is wrong with Japan.  Others would rather ask: What is good about Japan? Or better still, what is wrong with Africa.

Whichever of the three questions above, you may have chosen, gives you probably, the same conclusion about the prison condition in Africa. According to the most recent statistics about Japan, the number of crimes committed by people over the age of 65 has dramatically increased in the last 20 years. While common sense would blame the increase on a presumed criminal-mindedness of elderly Japanese, such an explanation when examined through the prism of Japanese law consciousness and zero-tolerance for crime begins to hold no water. But one wonders why not only that many elderly Japanese prefer a life behind the bar, they equally don’t mind at all repeating committing a crime as a short way to the prison. That act may sound unreasonable, but that does not necessarily make these elderly Japanese naïve and careless. Hardly not.

Undeniably, as a law-abiding country, Japan is a no-nonsense country when it comes to fighting crimes. It is very common for one to receive up to a 2-year jail term for a theft of an item worth less than three dollars. Nor is it, therefore, strange that such a country would rather spend as much as an 8.4m-yen ($760,000) tax bill to provide for a two-year sentence for the theft of a $2 bar of chocolate, according to the 2016 report. Although opponents would consider such a jail term extremely harsh and perhaps question as well, the economic sense of such costly jail expenses; it equally shows how far the country can go to maintain law and order.

However, one would question why elderly Japanese would rather prefer to break the law simply to land themselves in the prison, despite the fact that the country is very strict with the law and harsh in giving out long jail sentences. This is where the difference between Japanese society and its prison conditions differ from Africa’s. Accepted that the Japanese society is not only incredibly expensive, it is structured in such a way that an individual’s independence is the norm. This notion of independence discourages begging or asking for a favour; so most elderly people prefer not to be a burden to their children or close family members. The result is that many elderly Japanese who do not have good contact with their family members end up in absolute loneliness. Furthermore, those with a limited monthly pension find it very hard to cope with the excessively high cost of living. On the other hand, the government spends a lot of money to provide a quality prison service. Faced with this kind of reality, one does not need to be a Harvard trained Economist to make the “right” choice – and beat the system. The result: in view of  loneliness and shortage of income, the elderly Japanese  massively choose a life behind the bar, where they can get a free house, food, save much on electricity and water bills as well as save their pension money; all these “advantages” at the cost of being a habitual criminal.

 To solve the problem of encouraging the elderly to go into petty theft, as well as minimizing millions paid for expensive court proceedings and incarceration of the elderly, the Japanese government is planning to build a retirement village for older people, where they can live and have contact with each other. The plan is that the elderly occupants forfeit half of their pension, but are compensated with quality health care, free food, comfortable accommodation, with a possibility to play gate-ball or karaoke with other residents. This will go a long way in fighting loneliness amongst the elderly and, trust Japan, reducing habitual crimes amongst the elderly. More than that, the system will save the Japanese government billions yearly.

When will African government learn from the Japanese to reform and bring about structural positive changes in their prisons – as well as the society in general? A good question, begging for African leaders’ response.