New Insights into Pretrial Detention in Three West African Countries

Almost half Africa’s prison population consists of people held in pretrial detention, awaiting a trial that may take months or years to materialize.  

Now, for the first time, a series of reports has captured demographic information from three West African countries about who these pretrial detainees are, and the impacts of their detention on their families and communities. The three reports, from Sierra Leone, Ghana and Guinea Conakry, were produced by the Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice, in collaboration with UNDP and civil society organizations in the three countries.

The reports used a ‘snapshot’ methodology; the researchers interviewed people in pretrial detention on one day and followed up with a number of their family members. They show that prisons are filled with average people, who, in countries near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, are poor, live primarily at a subsistence level and have no savings or safety net to tide them over in difficult times.

Who is in pretrial detention?

The typical pretrial detainee is a married man in his 30s, who was supporting a number of dependents at the time of his arrest. Nearly all were the breadwinners in their families and most were earning at least the minimum monthly wage.

Their levels of formal education reflected the average in each of the countries. In Sierra Leone and Guinea over 30 percent had not received any formal education, but in Guinea there was also a higher than average number of pretrial detainees who had completed university level education.

Prior to their arrest the detainees in Sierra Leone were supporting, on average, four dependants, either school-aged children or elderly parents and other relatives.  In Ghana and Guinea the number was higher; each detainee was supporting, on average, over seven dependents.

This demographic information shows that these are men in the prime of their working lives. They were engaged in different sectors ranging from civil service to the informal sector but still bringing in an average income, supporting their families from day to day, but without savings to fall back on. Some had been granted bail but were unable to muster the resources to comply with the bail conditions and others had been solicited for bribes. The end result: prisons full of poor people who fall prey to the system. In the words of one family member from Guinea:

“The police demanded a bribe for the release of our brother, but we did not have it. Our mother spent a lot, but she is old and sick—it is very difficult.”

What is the impact on their families and communities?

Put simply, families no longer have the support of a breadwinner on which they were relying for their day to day needs. Those interviewed reported that their families had fallen deeper into poverty—some said their families had less food, others fell into debt and many had to sell basic household goods. In other cases children had to give up school or families had to move.

The lack of an income was exacerbated by expenses incurred by family members to travel to and from the prison, provide food, medication, pay bribes and legal fees. On average across the three counties, families incurred expenses equivalent to ten months’ of earnings. Reports from the family members highlighted the problems experienced; one family member in Sierra Leone said:

“Before the arrest, I was a petty trader, my husband was a miner. We have lost all we had. My entire business is finished. Just yesterday I sold the shaker [for mining] without the knowledge of my husband and I don’t know what he will do when he gets out of prison.”

Another in Ghana said,

“We sold a refrigerator, an iron and a television in order to raise money to care for him.”

This exacts a toll on individual families and on their socioeconomic development, for example, if children have to drop out of school, or time is spent carrying out tasks manually because basic equipment had to be sold.

Detainees and their families also reported a variety of impacts on the way they live. Nearly all said that their families were faced negative reactions from members of their communities. One family member in Sierra Leone said:

Since this case was brought against the family we have become a laughing stock for the entire community. Children who used to fetch water from our well no longer do so. At night children throw stones on the roof and make fun of us. Community leaders are not taking our complaint seriously.”

The studies provide insight into the way that the damage caused by excessive and arbitrary pretrial detention goes far beyond the impact on the individual who is detained. That should cause policymakers to think more deeply about the importance of justice in their development priorities—showing that a poorly functioning justice system can actually undercut broader government efforts to fight poverty.

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