By on October 1, 2010 in Africa

Boiling Point

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Martin Luther King Jr.

Incarceration without a trial. Rampant corruption among staff. Uncontrolled spread of deadly disease. Unbelievable overcrowding of cells. Extreme scarcity of food.

Welcome to the prisons of Africa. Many are Hell-on-Earth and incubators of slow and painful death. The inhumanity is so widespread that it is impossible to fully gauge the depth of it. From Senegal to Somalia and many places in between, the dire state of the prisons and overall justice system has reached a boiling point.

One Million Prisoners, Zero Rights

In Africa’s prisons, the only thing worse than an overly harsh sentence for a crime is a sentence for a crime that one didn’t even commit. But for many, with little to no access to lawyers or any sort of a justice system, the point is moot either way.

There are an estimated one million prisoners in Africa, though with such poor record keeping, the real number cannot be known for sure. The legal system in many countries is so underdeveloped or corrupt that the charges against a person accused of a crime may never even reach court. That person may spend their entire life in jail without any sort of a proper legal proceeding. In places like Equatorial Guinea’s Black Beach Prison, torture and beatings by staff are frequent. To make matters even worse, they are frequently denied even basic medical treatments. In Maula Prison in Nairobi, prisoners typically get only one meal of porridge per day.

In many countries, with a growing number of inmates entering the prison system each year, overcrowding is one of the biggest concerns according to human rights officials. In Maula, cells designed for 30 prisoners now house as many as 160. Prisoners sleep piled up against each other on the floor. Hygiene is virtually non-existent and diseases like dysentery are rampant. The death toll from living in such squalor is extremely high and the worst prisons lose as many as 1 out of 20 inmates per year.

With many countries mired in absolute poverty, little care or attention is paid to the rights of those that are criminals or thought to be criminals. For prisoners, the nightmare only seems to get worse.

Nightmare in Nairobi

While it’s hard to single out the worst prison in Africa since there are so many that offer innumerable atrocities, there is one that is certainly in the running for the title — Nairobi Prison in Kenya.

The most congested prison in Kenya with 3800 prisoners piled into cells designed to hold 800 at the max, this place lacks pretty much all of the basic necessities needed to sustain humane conditions. Many of the inmates are almost completely naked and constantly sweating from the heat and overcrowded conditions. Human waste is everywhere and the smell is choking. The daily budget for each prisoner is $0.30 US and a typical meal consists of boiled water and maize flour. Some inmates wear old prison uniforms and others wear their street clothes. Not having enough uniforms for everyone presents a security danger. Prisoners fear being sexually assaulted, especially due to the fact that they have to sleep so close to each other. Prisoners there who have be incarcerated in other prisons in Africa say that this is the worst prison they have done time in. One prisoner says, “This place is not fit for human beings.”

The intolerable situation in Nairobi Prison and other prisons throughout Africa presents a monumental challenge for human rights activists. Nonetheless, there are some who are working hard to bring humanity to these very dark places.

Africa Prisons Project

Africa Prisons Project (APP) is a charity founded to improve the welfare, health and education of prison detainees in Africa. They have successfully completed numerous projects for the betterment of African prisoners and have many more in the works.

In recent years, APP has made significant progress at Luzira Men’s Maximum Security Prison in Uganda. The prison is one of the most notorious in the country. APP has created a library for prisoners on death row, installed windows, lighting, plumbing, furniture and a 70-bed prison sick bay. At Victoria Women’s Prison, also in Uganda, they have renovated a health and maternity ward as well as the Women’s Death Row. At Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Kenya, APP has done a full renovation of their library and continues to provide ongoing resources to help maintain it. They are currently working on hospital, library, legal aid and university education centers for numerous prisons. They have inspected prisons in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe in consideration of future projects and welcome new ideas from the public for future projects.

Since it’s foundation, APP has been run by student and professional volunteers and offered those volunteers the opportunity to gain invaluable expertise working in Africa. They are a truly a great organization creating better conditions for now and the future.

Great Progress

The situation in many of Africa’s prisons is absolutely dire. Men and women often pay too high a price for their crimes. Often they pay the ultimate price by being imprisoned for a crime they never committed.

In recent years, the international spotlight has been shining on the injustices in African prisons. Journalists have visited prisons and written about the conditions there. Occasionally, the voices of prisoners themselves are heard. Humanitarian organizations have made great progress in making prisons a better and safer place to be.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And without a doubt, the prisoner’s of Africa deserve justice.


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