Jailed for Watching Daytime TV: the Need for Prison Reform in Africa

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In a recent report on over incarceration and overcrowding, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights has argued that that custodial sentences should be imposed as measures of last resort and applied proportionately to meet a pressing societal need.   A recent visit to East Africa illustrated that much more needs to be done if that is to be achieved in the region.

One 22 year old Tanzanian explained that he had been sentenced for watching television during the day- his offence seemed to be one of “idleness”.  Although his punishment was community service, this had only been imposed after he’d spent four days in prison. Throughout Africa prison appears regularly used to punish these kind of colonial era offences or for failures to comply with contemporary government regulations whether about conducting business, (such as operating a club without a licence) or obtaining fuel (such as making charcoal in the forest).

Most of the Kenyan cases we heard about involved illicit alcohol- brewing it, selling it, getting drunk on it even carrying it.  A presidential decree in July urged a crackdown on so called secondary alcohol and this is being vigorously enforced by local administrators. The country has a serious problem with drinks known as Changaa or Mugacho which, when adulterated have led to deaths by poisoning, blindness and what was described to us as a failure by men to carry out their husbandly duties.  But some at least of the drinks play a role in traditional customs at weddings, parties and other gatherings.

More than a third of the 300 women (and their 50 babies) we saw in Meru prison had been committed for a failure to pay large fines imposed for alcohol related offences of one sort or another.  While many are likely to see their sentences commuted to community service through a High Court “Decongestion Programme”, using criminal justice to crack down on the problem has created additional hardships on those who make their living by producing it and put considerable pressure on an already overstretched prison system.



Evidence of illicit alcohol outside a Kenyan court

The prison system still suffers from the persistent problem of excessive pre- trial detention; almost 800 of the 1200 men locked up at Meru were awaiting trial. Some were charged with serious and non bailable crimes but more than half, according to the Superintendent, were facing charges for petty offences. One barrier to their release is that magistrates worry about being thought corrupt if they free a defendant. Another is that, if they do so, the police are unwilling to pursue him should he flee. The result is unaffordable bail and routine remands in custody, sometimes for longer than any likely sentence.


Some defendants choose to bear the miserable conditions rather than change their plea, either through determination to maintain their innocence, fear of mob justice in the community or to benefit from the limited food and shelter unavailable to them outside. Judicial reform and performance management initiatives in both Kenya and Tanzania look so far to have failed to tackle some of the underlying dysfunction in the countries’ criminal justice processes. Indeed it may have made things worse. One magistrate told us his target of completing 250 cases a year provided a disincentive to adjourn cases for a report on an offender’s suitability for an alternative sanction.

There look to be some relatively easy prison reform wins; Kenya has no remission or parole, and Tanzania does not even subtract time spent on remand from the length of prison sentences.  Taking action on these are the kind of steps the UN Commissioner wants states to take to prison  overcrowding so that they “comply with their international obligations, and  guarantee detainees the dignity inherent to every human being”