Posted on Friday, 04 August 2017 14:04
By Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher
Death row inmates at Ghana’s Nsawam Prison languish in grim conditions as Amnesty International calls on the country’s new government to abolish the death penalty
“Condemned, condemned!” shouted the prison officer at Nsawam Prison, an hour outside Ghana’s bustling capital city, Accra. Here, 144 men sit on death row. Nearby, in a separate female prison, four women face the same fate.
Over the past year, the Ghana Prison Service opened their door to Amnesty International and we interviewed 107 death row prisoners for our new report Locked Up and Forgotten: The Need to Abolish the Death Penalty in Ghana.
Among the prisoners we spoke to, the feeling of isolation was almost tangible. “You can’t mix with others,” Kofi*, one of the prisoners, told us. “Death row is a prison within a prison.” John looked at the wall topped with barbed wire and broken glass. “My hobby used to be football,” he said. “If they would give me a chance I would play.”
Shouts and applause from football matches organised by other cell blocks can be heard daily in the male death row section. There are a few tattered books for prisoners who can read. But most prisoners, ranging from their early 20s to their late 70s, come from poor backgrounds and have little education.
A man who used to be a teacher said he had applied to the prison school, but was refused. An elderly woman who has been on death row for nine years added: “I don’t do anything. I sweep and I wait.” Death row prisoners cannot take part in many rehabilitative activities. “Because they are marked for death,” a prison officer told me somberly.
Ghana has not carried out executions since 1993. However death sentences continue to be handed down by the courts. There is no official moratorium on executions and many prisoners are unsure whether the government will resume executions. Kwaku said nervously: “You never know… they say they are not killing us, but we are suffering.”
Death row prisoners rarely have visitors. Some said the journey is too far and expensive for their families. A 65-year-old woman who has been on death row since 2010 wiped away tears as she said no one visits her. Many death row prisoners have not seen their children for several years as those under 18 are generally not allowed. Kojo has not seen his three children since he was arrested in 2008. Meeting relatives or visiting the health care facility are the only circumstances in which death row prisoners can leave their small enclosure.
Some prisoners try to be industrious. One man shines shoes. Another tries to make a wash rag out of rice bags. But several cried when speaking to us. During a monitoring visit in 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture noted several prisoners on death row showing severe signs of mental and physical trauma. One man told me: “I’m worried at how to maintain my family. I feel depressed. I cry.”
“Sometimes the sickness comes and he shakes,” another prisoner said about a man carried to the health care facility. “He fights with his cell mates when the sickness comes. He is taken to the hospital but does not get enough medical attention.”
According to the Prison Service as of March 2017 there were six death row inmates thought to have mental or intellectual disabilities. They do not receive special medical attention, though the prison is in the process of hiring a psychiatric specialist.
Although three quarters of prisoners had a lawyer at their trial, appointed by the underfunded Ghana Legal Aid Scheme, several prisoners said that their lawyers did not attend all the hearings and they did not have enough time to talk to them. A number said their lawyers asked for payment. “My lawyer says he cannot work if he does not have money,” said one man.
According to the Prison Service, only 12 death row prisoners have appealed since 2006. Half of these appeals had been successful. Most on death row did not know about their right to appeal or how to get legal aid. A woman told me a private lawyer asked for 60 million cedis (more than US$12,000) to file an appeal. Another said his appeal had stalled when his lawyer asked for more money.
Many Ghanaians are surprised to learn the death penalty remains in Ghana. In 2011, Ghana’s Constitution Review Commission recommended it be abolished, citing several compelling reasons, including that it does not serve as deterrent for crime. But attempts to implement this recommendation have faltered because of unspecified delays in the constitutional reform process.
More than 100 countries, including 19 in Africa, have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Yet no country in Anglophone West Africa has done so.
Ghana, which this year marked its 60th independence anniversary, can be proud of many firsts: the first sub-Saharan country to obtain independence or to raise a United Nations Secretary General. Nana, on death row for five years, was hopeful the leadership extends to abolishing the death penalty: “Other countries are changing, we want things to be changed,” he said. “Ghana should lead the way”.
For more information, see Amnesty International’s new report, Locked Up and Forgotten: The Need to Abolish the Death Penalty in Ghana.
* Names of prisoners have been changed to protect their identities.
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