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date: 03 October 2022

Prisons in Africafree

Prisons in Africafree

  • Jeremy SarkinJeremy SarkinDepartment of Law, University of South Africa


African prisons are some of the least-studied penal institutions anywhere in the world. This is not true everywhere on the continent, as prisons in some countries such as South Africa are adequately studied and have been the subject of commissions of inquiry stretching back to colonial times. It is also difficult to generalize about Africa. For example, there are massive disparities between north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Usually, not much information beyond generalities exists for many of them across the African continent. As a result, many negative perceptions endure that are not reflective of the different systems and the different countries in the region. The focus of the research has often been on specific themes and certain countries only and has generally focused on problems. There is, however, a need to portray a more realistic situation in prisons in all fifty-four countries more accurately, without generalizing, and to provide more solution-orientated research to a variety of issues. This can be partly achieved by comparative investigation.

While the conditions in many African prisons are harsh and difficult for inmates, comparatively speaking, prisons in Africa are not the worst in the world. However, they are generally overcrowded, and there is much violence. Issues generally concerning health, food, sanitation, amenities, and other matters remain generally problematic. However, much data is missing from a range of countries. More research is needed to gather more data and to interrogate the diverse prisons in the different countries. There is a need for more holistic research that understands prisons not as isolated institutions but as part of criminal justice systems. There is a need to understand how methods of policing, the conduct of prosecutions, and court processes all have an impact upon conditions within the prisons of a particular country.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • World Politics


Nearly 11 million people are confined in prisons around the world. Approximately 1 million of those are confined in African prisons. The number of people in prison globally has been rising for decades. The increasing global numbers are due to factors including “increasingly punitive public debate and political cultures,” “geo-political insecurities,” and changing priorities that see a need to substitute the “welfare state” with a “penal state” (Jacobsen, Heard, & Fair, 2017). While it is reported that crime rates have been going down, fear of crime is at high levels, particularly because of the actions and terrorist acts of certain nonstate actors such as ISIS, Boko Haram, and others (PRI, 2017). As a result, public attitudes about prisons and the role they should play have increasingly hardened in many places around the world.

Negative public perceptions about African prisons are widespread but often untrue. Generally, prisons on the continent are perceived as being overcrowded, in a poor state of physical repair, and the buildings neglected. The perceptions are that maltreatment by warders and violence by prisoners is normal and disease rife. The widespread view that persists is that the prison infrastructural facilities are insufficient, that the bulk of prisoners are awaiting trial with little ability to secure legal assistance, that various vulnerable groups (such as women and children) are in great jeopardy, that staff are corrupt and incompetent, and that prisoners’ most basic rights are infringed upon (Jefferson & Martin, 2016, p. 431). These views, while true for some prisons, do not reflect the reality across the length and breadth of the continent. Despite similar problems, prison conditions across the African continent vary widely from one country to the next, as well as within particular countries (Sarkin, 2008). The conditions are different in each of the countries. Thus, some countries have more than 200 prisons each (South Africa and Uganda) while others have fewer than five prisons each (Cape Verde, Comoros, Djibouti, Gambia, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Reunion, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Seychelles). The rate of confinement varies considerably across the various subregions of the continent. While the median rate of confinement for West Africa is 52 per 100,000, the rate for southern African countries is nearly four times higher, at 188 people per 100,000. Despite some information being available, there is a lack of knowledge about prisons generally, and in Africa specifically.

While Africa is composed of a variety of societies and diverse realities, there are a number of common problems. These problems include too many pretrial prisoners (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2014). As with many other problems these are not uniquely African prison problems but exist in most other prison systems. It is true that conditions in penal institutions are often harsh and that vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, same-sex prisoners, and others are especially exposed to harm in such places (Adae-Amoakoh, 2012). These are not problems specific to African institutions but universal ones. What is unknown, however, is how similar or different African prisons are specifically among one another, as there has been far less research conducted on African prisons than on some others. As a consequence, knowledge about many prison systems and specific prisons in some places does not always exist.

From a methodological point of view, it has been argued that prison research is approached in a certain way, with a “particular analytic lens” and a “strongly normative orientation,” which leads to a picture that is “fragmented and blurred” (Jefferson & Martin, 2016, p. 423). It is claimed that there is an emphasis on everything that a prison in Africa is not but that there is insufficient understanding of what prisons in Africa are (Jefferson & Martin, 2016, p. 423). However, prison research should not only focus on what prisons are or are not but also on what they could and should be: this can be done by providing a series of suggestions and recommendations to solve issues possibly using comparative research. Thus, research should also focus on how to reform prisons by understanding their practical difficulties and by suggesting appropriate solutions. More comparative research ought to be conducted, which indicates how problems have been solved elsewhere, using innovative and cost-effective methods. There should be a focus on problem-solving and finding ways to achieve reform that can contribute in positive ways.

This article therefore reviews some of the problems that exist, the research that has been conducted, and what the gaps and deficiencies are within the research. It identifies what research is not being conducted and suggests what issues should be looked at. This is done not only to try and assist prison systems to improve what they do but also to help decision makers obtain the information they need to make the appropriate decisions about reform.

Colonial Origins and Colonial Effects on African Prisons

The origins and purpose of prisons historically have been a key focus of research on African prisons (Bah, 2003). What seems to be generally accepted is that penitentiary institutions are not legacies of African traditions from the past (Bernault, 2003). Imprisonment was by no means a standard practice in African justice (Milner, 1969). In fact, the local judicial systems generally in African states focused more on supporting victims, rather than focusing on perpetrators. Indeed, the purpose of this system was the restitution of the harm.

Imprisonment was not used as a form of punishment until the late 19th century. However, two exceptions must be noted. Prisons were used in connection with the slave trade (Thomas, 1998), and southern African states implemented incarceration from the beginning of the 19th century. However, the first prisons were not designed for rehabilitation or reintegration but to serve to curtail rebellious acts and maintain social, economic, and political order.

Prisons are thus colonial impositions that came from Europe during that era (Dikötter & Brown, 2007). The European colonial system sought ways to perpetrate racial superiority and mete out various harsh penalties, such as corporal punishment, to those who would oppose the colonial project or perpetrate deeds seen to attack colonial authority (Clifford, 1969).

Colonial practices and how they affected African societies is still of interest for researchers. Thus, much more is known about colonial prison practices and their legacy in places such as South Africa (Peté & Devenish, 2005), and Kenya (Bianchi).

A newer theme that permeates the literature is the legacy of colonial prisons across the continent. Part of the reason is that many colonial prison structures are still in use. Their design reflects the culture and processes that existed during the colonial era. Furthermore, legacy colonial effects are found in many other areas of prison management. Colonial-era legislation still exists in many African countries. Much of the legislation is either still from the colonial era or still has, as its backbone, colonial-era laws. They have not been updated or reformed to be appropriate to changing circumstances since independence. Thus, colonial-era laws and processes still impact penal environments. This is not uniform and not seen everywhere. To some extent, there are similarities between states that had common colonial masters. Thus, in some places the effect of colonialism remains within prisons and even within criminal justice systems that still have some semblance of colonial-era laws. One legacy of colonial law is the confinement in some places of people classified as rogues, idle and undesirable, or vagabonds (Ehlers, 2017).

Research and Knowledge on African Prisons

Knowledge about African prisons is generally limited (Dikötter & Brown, 2007). This has been a long-term problem. Information about the legislation that governs prisons, the management processes that are used to govern them, and a range of other matters in African prisons are generally unknown. This is because they have not been the focus of much attention. For example, while it is clear that many of the laws governing prisons in numerous African countries are outdated, the effect of these old pieces of legislation, and how these laws are obstacles to fair and efficient processes, is insufficiently understood. Many of these laws are more than 30 or 40 years old. This legislation is in many places outdated and often ignored, with some exceptions in countries such as South Africa. However, the impact of archaic legislation, and what is being done to remediate them, needs further study. If it were known in a particular country by the legislature that its penal or criminal justice legislation was having a negative impact, and that there were cost-saving techniques that could be used, there would be more impetus to embark on a reform process. Thus, detailed studies of individual prisons and prisons systems in accessible publications could be catalysts for reform in a number of states.

Specific data about prisons in many African countries is usually hard to come by. For many African countries there is little information available and even less information about specific prisons. This is not true for all countries. For countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Uganda, much more information exists than for many other African countries. For South Africa, more literature on prisons is available than on any other African country (Gordin & Cloete, 2011). A country that has seen an increased focus on prisons is Rwanda. This is because of the tens of thousands of people who were detained there in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Tens of thousands of people accused of committing genocide clogged up those prisons for years and became a focal point of how a country ought to deal with mass atrocities. Thus, while information on prisons is more forthcoming in some countries, most information about prison systems remains hidden, and little information is available. While prison numbers and staff-to-prisoner ratios are generally accessible, not much specific information is available. For several countries data is often unavailable. These include Guinea Bissau, Eritrea, and Somalia (Warmsley, 2016, p. 2).

In many places where there is data about prisons, it is often general and lacking in detail. In others, if available, the data is not always reliable. In other places the data is insufficiently collated. In other places data is only to be found in state reports that are at times hard to come by because they are not made available (usually not found on the Internet), are often in the local language, and are sometimes hard to follow. Disaggregated data is also not widely available, which limits further research. In general, the data produced by African states is often inaccurate and not detailed enough. Some prison systems in Africa do not collect and report their figures accurately. While difficult to prove, it seems as though some penal systems deliberately underreport their statistics—including, for example, statistics related to children in confinement—to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their policies. Often the numbers reported are rough estimates. In fact, not all prisoners and detainees in the various prisons or places of confinement in a country are always included in the statistics. In some states, only those in specifically designated prisons are incorporated in official figures, while those in other places of confinement, such as police stations, are not included. Because the numbers of prisoners constantly fluctuate, prison data is often inaccurate. The information often fails to reflect the highs or lows of the numbers confined. Information beyond raw numbers is also not often collected or shared by states.

There are many impediments to researchers and others receiving accurate information about prisons, including generally high levels of state secrecy about prison matters (Dikötter & Brown, 2007). While information about some prisons is released, places where conditions are particularly problematic remain usually remain inaccessible. Even when requests are made these are usually denied as occurred in 2015 in Gambia, which denied United Nations (UN) Special Procedures (Special Rapporteurs) access to their prisons. Access to prisons may be difficult for many reasons: including active denial of access, administrative incompetence, inaccessibility due to geography or political unrest, and so on. Often, prisons near large urban centers are in better condition and have more facilities than those in isolated places where there is less scrutiny. In many places, representatives of civil society do not have sufficient political or economic power to gain access. This hampers processes of accountability. There is also a general lack of public interest in many states about prisons and what happens inside them. There is generally little media and even civil society attention to such matters. This means that there is less reliable and less specific data on many African prisons. The veil of ignorance surrounding prisons fuels the neglect of prisoners and often permits abuse of those that are incarcerated because of limited scrutiny. There is also a general lack of sanctioning prison staff for problems in their systems. This lack of accountability for what happens in those prisons ensures that problems endure.

As a result of the lack of data, little is known about specific types of inmates including the elderly; minorities; those that are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI); and others. What seems to be true in African prisons is that their populations, as with other prison systems around the world, consist mainly of the unemployed, the undereducated, and those previously exposed to abuse. Again, in inmate populations there is an over-representation of marginalized persons or those that come from specific ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial groups. While this is known about other prison systems worldwide, it is not sufficiently known or understood in Africa. More knowledge (and therefore more research) is needed on these issues in an African context.

Other groups, for which there is a lack of information, include how many elderly prisoners are being confined and whether their needs are sufficiently addressed. There is hardly any mention of disabled prisoners in African prison literature. Little is known about the accommodation of prisoners with disabilities. The only time that the matter of disabled prisoners became an issue was with the conviction of South African disabled athlete Oscar Pistorius (the “blade runner”), who is in prison for killing his girlfriend. While it is well known that African countries host millions of refugees and others, and that xenophobia has been a massive problem in a number of states, what is unknown is the number of foreign asylum seekers, undocumented persons, and various other categories of persons (including the numbers of prisoners from specific ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, or other types of groups) who are incarcerated. An issue that is almost never mentioned is masculinity in prisons, except in some countries (Ryberg, 2014) such as South Africa. Another matter hardly dealt with is homosexuality (Blackburn, Fowler, & Mullings, 2011) although there has been work on such matters concerning South African prison gangs. Not much work has been done to understand how same-sex prisoners are dealt with and cope in prisons (Blackburn et al., 2011). As these issues are generally taboo; little is known about them generally, with few exceptions. Also unknown is whether sentencing policies and disciplinary practices and procedures are discriminating in law or practice against various types of prisoners. How certain groups are discriminated against and how this can be dealt with are areas that need more attention. If known, this would allow steps to be taken to try and address such systematic problems and provide greater assistance.

It is also generally unknown how many political prisoners are confined in each country. While this has been studied in the past for some countries, including by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International (McAtackney, 2013) total numbers of different types are generally unknown.

The lack of data on African prisons is symptomatic of a lack of research focus, reflecting a lack of interest in prisons generally and in Africa specifically. It could be argued that decades of political instability and a profound lack of resources also affect these issues. What is true is that it is difficult to conduct high-level prison research in certain places. Regardless, the absence of research has led to generalizations being made about the situation in prisons across the region. There are, however, many NGO reports that deal at least in part with African prisons, particularly in the human rights sector. They continue to focus on only some of the major problems in prisons. Much of the information is, however, general and anecdotal and lacks specificity and detail. While part of the problem for this lack of attention is a paucity of academic attention, a major contributor to a lack of knowledge and interest is that African prisons, as with other prisons, remain hidden from public view and scrutiny. Some of the available prison data from various countries has been collected and collated by Penal Reform International (PRI) and by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. However, this information includes broad national statistics or speaks to general national issues rather than what occurs inside a country’s prisons.

Despite an increase in the academic literature covering African prisons in the last two decades, for example on health issues of African prisoners, information on institutions across the continent remains absent from the academic literature. The research conducted on African prisons has been conducted within a range of disciplines including politics, law, health, gender studies, ethnography, sociology, criminology, among others. A number of studies have examined human rights issues in African prisons on the continent (Mahmoud, 2006). Much of the research work is descriptive and not particularly wide ranging. It is most often devoted to a single country. If not devoted to only one country it is focused on just a few nations where information is available. Not a great deal of quantitative data is being collected. The amassing of statistical data is generally left to the UN and state statistics agencies. Few local or international NGOs or even the UN are collecting much of the information other than those who compile world reports or specific state reports. Generally, the research studies have been rather limited, rather than being large research projects that continue for many years. The studies are usually conducted in one discipline rather than being interdisciplinary. There is little crossover between various areas of interest and not much multidisciplinary research (Morelle & Le Marcis, 2015). This weakens the research and reduces its relevance and impact. Also, much of the research is being conducted by those from outside the continent or those from a few countries in Africa. There is a need to increase the role of indigenous or local researchers to inform debates about prison issues. There is also a need to educate the general public about standards and practices that can play a positive role in reforming prisons. A key question for research to impact reform is the level of knowledge among the general population and what influences thinking on prison issues. Thus, there is a need to ensure that the research is not confined largely to academic journals but that the media becomes a partner in educating the broader society in Africa on prison issues. There still remains a divide between NGO research and academic research on these issues, and greater collaboration would have tremendous benefits for reforming prison practice.

The Need for a Holistic Approach to Prison Research

Prisons play a central role in the affairs of a state. They are a critical part of the criminal justice system. They have a dramatic effect on state budgets. They impact critically on many government departments including justice, health, public works, safety and security, and many others. What is insufficiently researched and often misunderstood is how prisons significantly drain state resources and what could be done to reduce wasteful expenditure. But also important is how changes in the criminal justice system could have a positive budgetary effect. Thus, much more emphasis ought to be placed on economic research that evaluates prisons and their costs and how dealing with issues of bail, reducing the length of prison sentences, and alternative non-custodial sentencing would play a role in reducing the numbers of people in prison. In this regard, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Rwanda are exploring using community service punishments as a means to reduce the prison population. Some countries such as Burundi and Kenya have recently used pardons while some countries such as Angola, in 2016, and Ethiopia, in 2017, have used an amnesty to release thousands of prisoners.

Also needed is more focus on corruption. While the focus on corruption in prisons is often on corrupt prison officials, more work is needed on state tenders and how finance for prisons is diverted away from where the needs are, and the impact thereof.

Research is also needed to bring about a greater understanding about the manner in which prisons constitute a significant part of the criminal justice system and how, if a particular part of the system is not functioning efficiently, the effects will be felt in other parts. This is particularly true for prisons, as they are at the end of the criminal justice system and cannot control how many prisoners or detainees they have. The problems that exist in the other parts of the criminal justice system cause delays and have dire consequences for prisons and issues such as overcrowding, not to mention a host of other problems as well. What has been shown by the research, including research conducted by the UN, is that there is a direct relationship between pretrial confinement percentages, congestion, and state income levels. The research conducted by UNODC indicates that the poorest countries have larger percentages of unconvicted inmates, which reflects on their criminal justice systems’ lack of capacity (Global Prison Trends, 2017).

Thus, prisons ought not to be evaluated in isolation but as a part of the wider legal system—and specifically the criminal justice system of a country as a whole. Prisons are a part of the justice system that also comprises policing and the courts. Each of those parts directly affect one another as problems in one have a direct bearing on the others, especially as far as prisons are concerned. Deficient legislation, a lack of resources, poorly trained staff, and unsettled political conditions, as well as other issues that impact one part of the system, usually have important consequences for the system as a whole. Thus, all facets of the criminal justice system ought to be holistically studied. For example, the high number of prisoners detained before conviction often stems from problems in the courts and has a predictably dramatic impact on prisons. It indicates that the criminal justice process is slow and that few alternatives to imprisonment before trial are being employed. While there has been academic research interest on such issues, adopting measures to alleviate a variety of problems has not been implemented to any great extent in many places. Part of the problem is resources that are often blamed for new innovative strategies are not being taken up. However, some of the research, particularly from comparative penal systems, shows that new solutions can often save resources.

As a result of backlogs and problems in certain criminal justice systems there has been some interest in using traditional justice mechanisms to deal with minor crimes such as in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. One exception to traditional courts being used for minor crimes is in Rwanda, where the Gacaca courts were used to deal with the international crime of genocide. In general, the work on such mechanisms has been descriptive rather than evaluative and has studied how these mechanisms have been used elsewhere to achieve positive diversionary effects for the criminal justice system as whole. The comparative benefits of using traditional processes need more research to explain how such systems can be used to deal with problems in the formal legal system. The dangers of an overreliance on these types of justice models also need attention.

Other tools such as community service processes need more research to determine where they have been used and how the problems associated with their establishment and ongoing management have been solved in similar societies. Issues relating to alternative sentences, in general and for specific groups such as children and women, are not often focused on by prison systems generally. While some systems have looked at and adopted some innovative practices in some specific areas, there is a common absence of focus on such measures. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules) are not having the desired effect. More needs to be done to make officials, judges, and lawmakers as well as others aware of how such processes can assist in reducing prison numbers.

Thus, the use of alternatives that reduce the pressure on prisons would be helpful, although it depends on the benefits of such processes being made more widely known to all those involved in the criminal justice system: from lawmakers to prosecutors and judges. Training is essential. In some places this happens, but in other places this rarely occurs. However, the impact is not always felt even in areas where it is well known because of legal problems and a lack of political will. Ongoing judicial training would have significant effects. While there are many such programs, the knowledge generated about them and their benefits is not specifically researched. More data is necessary to determine what type of training has the optimum benefit and what can be done to enhance such processes.


The World Crime Trends and Emerging Issues and Responses in the Field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice report in 2016 (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2016) found that overcrowding was the “priority challenge for prison administrations around the world.” Indeed, many prisons in Africa are overcrowded, but this has long been a problem.

Issues relating to overcrowding in African prisons have been studied over the years but not in great detail except in places such as South Africa. Knowledge about the rates of overcrowding in African countries does exist, but specific detail about which prisons have what rates for what time periods is lacking. Thus, we can know approximately what the supposed confinement numbers in specific prisons are. However, it is never certain how accurate these data are and whether the capacity of each prison is correct.

The largest contributing factor to overcrowding globally is increasing confinement numbers. Between 2000 and 2015 in Oceania these numbers rose by 59% (general population growth 25%) in the Americas by 41% (general population growth 17%), and in Asia by 29% (general population growth 18%). However, Africa’s prison confinement rate only increased by 15% (with general population growth 44%). Conversely, European confinement rates fell by 21%, while its general population grew 3% (Jacobsen, Heard, & Fair, 2017, p. vii). In the 21st century about 144 out of every 100,000 people in the world are in prison.

African prisons have a confinement rate that averages about 94 persons per 100,000 people, and the countries with the most prisoners are outside Africa. Those countries are the United States, India, and Brazil (Allen, 2010). While there have been increases in prison numbers across Africa, those escalations are not uniform even in the same subregions. It is nonetheless true that prison numbers have increased generally in East, Central, and West Africa rates (Global Prison Trends, 2017). In North Africa, Algeria has a confinement rate of 162 per 100,000 people. In Morocco the rate stands at 222 per 100,000, while in Tunisia there are 212 people per 100,000 of the prison population. However, in Sudan there are 19,000 prisoners at a rate of only 50 people per 100,000. The 16 West African countries have prison population rates below 80, except for Cape Verde, which has a rate of 286 per 100,000. Twelve out of the 16 countries have seen a rise in their prison population rate, with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Niger seeing a decrease in their rates. In Central Africa five of the 10 countries have rates above 100, but four of the other five are below 40. The 10th country, the Central African Republic, has a prison population rate of only 16 per 100,000. In East Africa, the two highest confinement rates are found in Rwanda with 434 persons for each 100,000 and the Seychelles, which has rate of a staggering 799 per 100,000. Seven of the countries of that region had rates below 100 with the Comoros at 31. Seven out of the 17 countries have seen decreasing rates of confinement1 (Walmsley, 2016). In southern African countries four of the five countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland) have rates of above 100, with two of them at nearly 300 (South Africa and Swaziland). Lesotho has a rate of 92. All have shown a decline in their rates (Walmsley, 2016).

Thus, there have been large regional variations and even big differences between countries in the same region. In some states, such as Algeria, Nigeria, and Morocco, there have been large increases in the prison population. In Ethiopia, numbers have nearly doubled. However, in countries such as South Africa and Rwanda there have been large decreases in the prison population. These changes obviously affect overcrowding rates.

The rise in prison numbers is the major reason for increased overcrowding levels. However, the main source of overcrowding in prisons generally are the large numbers of pretrial or remand prisoners. Of the 11 million people in prison around the world, over 2.5 million of them are pretrial or remand prisoners. However, this is far from a specifically African prison problem. It is a universal issue. The median percentage rate of such prisoners in Africa is 41.5%, which is the highest of all continents and much higher than the global average of 27% (Warmsley, 2016). Thus, while it is not a specifically African problem, it is more of a problem in Africa than elsewhere. However, the African numbers seem to be growing faster than others. One study in 2014 found that African prisons had the second highest rate of un-convicted prisoners after Asia. It was found that African prisons have an occupancy rate of about one third of such unconvicted detainees, who are usually “poor, and economically and politically marginalized” (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2014).

The country with the largest percentage of un-convicted prisoners in the world is Libya, which has a 90% confinement rate of such prisoners. Benin is 5th on the world list, the DRC is 8th (73%), Nigeria is 9th (72%), and the Central African Republic 11th (70%) (Warmsley, 2016).

While the broad numbers of those awaiting trial are known, what is often not known is the length of time that people spend awaiting trial. Averages are usually available, but the length of pending trial times varies in different parts of a country. More research in this area could reveal the extent of the problems in this area and specifically help target where intervention is needed.

It must be noted though that the pretrial confinement rates are generalized numbers, and they do not reflect differences across regions or African countries. However, there does seem to have been a decrease in the numbers of awaiting trial prisoners in African prisons. The African countries with the highest numbers of pretrial prisoners are Nigeria and South Africa (Gordin & Cloete, 2011). In about 60% of countries, the pretrial prison population is between 10% and 40% of the total. However, in about half the African countries, they constitute more than 40%.

Specific reasons for overcrowding vary widely in each place. Certainly, if a lack of resources are not the cause of overcrowding, this certainly exacerbates the problem. The fact that there are not enough courtrooms, judges, prosecutors, interpreters, police officers (among others) causes an increase in the numbers of pretrial prisoners. Logistical problems such as a lack of transport between the prisons and the courts in Sierra Leone have delayed court proceedings and have led to people spending longer times awaiting trial.

Overcrowding has also been affected by the fact that some countries such as South Africa have enacted strict mandatory minimum sentencing provisions that lead to longer sentences for those convicted of crimes. Sentencing guidelines could play a role in ensuring that appropriate sentences are meted out.

Another problem is that getting people out of prison is often a slow process. Thus, South Africa, as an example, has been slow to process parole applications. This has ensured that people who could have been released have stayed behind bars for longer. Furthermore, while the numbers of inmates have increased over time in African prisons, few new prisons have been built (Sarkin, 2008, pp. 25–26). States are generally unwilling to put an abundance of resources into prison systems and are reluctant to build new places of confinement.

Another reason for overcrowding is that some countries tend to confine more people than their peers. This means that their prisons are more crowded. Why some countries confine more people is a question that requires more research, as it could play a role in trying to address the situation.

Overcrowding is also affected by other matters, such as increases in the length of sentences meted out by criminal justice systems, including increasing numbers of life sentences in countries such as South Africa. As a result of longer sentences, there is a direct effect on overcrowding rates. However, because there is a lack of data for the region as a whole—for states, and for specific prisons—whether this is typical or not remains unknown and needs more research. Problematically, the relationship between prison-term length and over-incarceration rates in an African context has not been established and quantified on a wide scale. While information is known for some countries, it is not widely ascertained in an accessible manner, and more comparative research and analysis is needed. The issue of longer sentences is not the only problem that emanates from the criminal justice system, which impacts on overcrowding rates. As noted, high levels of congestion in the courts also create spacing problems in prisons (Cocodia, 2010, p. 7).

There is a need to understand why some countries confine more people than others. At present there is much conjecture but little real analysis and understanding. More empirical research is necessary to understand punitiveness and its causes. Also important to understand is the effect of prison policy in African countries on crime (International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, 2016). This remains largely misunderstood and often reflects the harsh attitudes of citizens and government in these countries. Thus, it is necessary to better understand the way criminal issues are used for cynical political reasons and the extent to which there is public support for harsh prison conditions. It is also necessary to understand how such attitudes can be softened by looking at how this has been done elsewhere.

Generally speaking, the impact of not having legal representation and its impact on overcrowding is also under-researched. While levels of legal representation are known for some African countries, comparative data is sparse. Furthermore, how unrepresented accused are dealt with is insufficiently understood from a comparative prospective since data is also lacking. While some countries such as Uganda have laws that limit the time a person can remain on remand, how widespread those types of laws are, and the extent to which they are complied with ought to be better understood. The provision of legal aid could play a part in reducing the numbers of pretrial prisoners and even possibly impact on the length of sentences given. If states understood how legal aid, if implemented more widely, could affect the number of pretrial prisoners and therefore the beneficial cost impact this could exert on their justice systems, they may be more willing to provide this service. This could impact levels of remand prisoners in jail. Thus, more needs to be researched to determine what effect the lack of legal aid has for the economic situation of the criminal justice systems in African countries.

Another issue that needs research is the level of knowledge, and the extent to which the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems have been implemented in African countries. Greater awareness and effective implementation could have dramatic effects on such prisons. While the Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System in Africa was adopted in 2004, not much action has been taken to ensure that its recommendations have been implemented.

More research is also needed on the specific effects of overcrowding. While generally the effects are known, the specific multiple effects in certain places need to be understood and awareness raised so that remedial action can occur. While it known that overcrowded cells have enormously negative health and safety effects and that overpopulation causes an increase of physical and sexual aggressions, as well as suicide, what can be done to alleviate that plight would benefit from more research (Noeske, Ndi, & Mbondi, 2011; O’Grady et al., 2010).

Violence in African Prisons

Prison violence is a pervasive theme in prison literature, although not to the same extent for African prisons. While institutional violence and inmate on inmate violence is common, there has been little focus on such matters in African prisons specifically: a rare exception, for example, being South Africa. Torture is regularly reported in a variety of prisons, but there has been no systematic investigation because of the difficulties of getting information. There has, however, been focus on institutions that still use caning, such as in Uganda (Martin, 2014, p. 70). However, the research, as with most other issues, is not very extensive.

It does seem as though prison violence levels in Africa are not nearly as extensive and as harsh as that which occurs in other regions such as Latin America. In prisons in the Americas, lethal violence is a common phenomenon. So, too, are riots and prison seizures by inmates (Sarkin, 2008). There have been some instances in African countries, such as a riot at the main prison in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 2015; at the Rebeuss Prison in Dakar, Senegal, in 2016 (Babatunde, 2016); at the Al-Qasr Prison in Nouakchott Mauritania in 2016; and at the Kgosi Mampuru II Prison in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2017. These events are not always reported; but when they are reported, they receive relatively limited coverage.

Prison violence is common in Africa but not extensively studied except in places such as South Africa (African News Agency, 2016). It is not surprising that the number of deaths and injuries in many prisons is so high. The extent of the problem is, however, not known, as the figures are difficult to calculate. South Africa reported that in 2014, 50 prison officers were assaulted. While Nigeria released information that 900 prisoners died in 2016, this was blamed on a lack of healthcare, an issue taken up in the section on “Health Matters in African Prisons” in this article. Generally, the numbers of prisoner deaths, injuries, and the causes thereof are difficult to ascertain. Linked to this, research is limited on prison gangs, which are commonly found in various prison systems in Africa. There have been investigations into such groups in Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda, but much more research is needed. Knowledge is also needed on the role of gangs in prisons and how prison conditions are enhanced or exacerbated by gangs and other control cultures in prisons.

While rape in prisons is another common phenomenon, there have been few studies on prevalence levels in the African context. Only for certain countries such as in South Africa has there been much work (Rosenkrantz, Lindegaard, & Gear, 2014). One of the reasons for prison violence is that there is not much for prisoners to do while incarcerated. Issues related to family visits and ways that prisoners remain a part of their communities need investigation as well as how to implement best practices. Idleness has consequences, including violence. Thus, there ought to be more focus on issues related to better social and physical conditions.

Governance and Reform Processes in African Prisons

The ways in which prisons are managed and how care is provided have not gotten much attention. Focus has been lacking on how the systems are actually run and how self-regulating or informal prison dynamics play a critical role in this regard (Garces, Martin, & Darke, 2012). Much more is needed in the way of research to understand how prison cultures operate and how prison management fits into those systems (Jacobsen, Heard, & Fair, 2017). It does seem, however, that the UN, a range of intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs have had a hand in bringing some of these issues to light. Certainly, increased reporting and oversight have played a role but so have UN processes including UPR and treaty bodies. A variety of reform initiatives has been put in place to deal with problems in many places.

However, it is difficult to reform the infrastructure, as many African prisons are old and often rundown. This is because many African prison structures were built in colonial times. The prisons have not been well maintained and tend to fall into disrepair (Sarkin, 2008). In addition, there has generally been a failure to increase capacity. New construction is not a common feature of African prison systems except for in places such as South Africa: a rare exception being a new prison in Uganda built in 2016. Comparative reviews should be done on how old prison buildings can be renovated. There is a role for those interested in urban design, architecture, town planning, and allied fields to conduct studies and advise, from a comparative point of view, on how the new designs and processes could be usefully adapted to local conditions. They could examine what is being done in other places and in Africa and around the world (Adekanmbi & Ezikpe, 2018). This has not been done in many places. Generally speaking, a number of problems would be reduced or solved by prison renovations including health and hygiene matters. It is certainly not about simply replicating the designs used in other countries. While adopting a more punitive process in confinement facilities by making them harsher and providing less amenities—a trend that has spread to a number of other countries—may seem attractive initially, this approach usually provokes more problems in the longer term, as more people are confined along with associated costs. Local African solutions that adapt processes and trends from elsewhere, especially in Africa but possibly from other Global South nations, may provide some benefits. However, the cost of prison improvements may undermine modernization trends. A trend toward private prisons, while initially attractive to countries such as South Africa, has not gained traction elsewhere (Buntman & Muntingh, 2013). More comparative research is thus needed on how cost-effective technology and innovative practices can play a positive role in reforming and upgrading prisons on the continent.

While some countries have set up inquiries into prison practices and problems, such as South Africa with its Jali Commission, this has not been a common experience (Muntingh, 2016). More should be done to examine how such processes from a comparative point of view could aid African states in their reform initiatives. National human rights institutions (NHRIs) should play a more robust role in this regard. An example of an NHRI focusing on prisons was a report in 2017 by the Liberian Independent National Commission on Human Rights on prison conditions in Liberia.

There is anecdotal research on the numbers of staff members in African prison systems, but it is still difficult to know which specific prisons have problems and what those problems are (Nawa, 2009). Clearly, understaffing has a variety of impacts, including on issues of supervision and monitoring but also on violence, food standards, and more. This is partly a budgetary issue, but reform would be more likely if the effects of these problems were known. However, inquiry is needed on what the specific problems are, how the problems could be remedied, and what steps other prisons on the continent have taken to ameliorate their situations using technology and other innovations.

Training staff is also critically important to boost the way prisons operate. While Penal Reform International (PRI) and a few others conduct training for prison officials, these sessions are short and only for a select few officials.

Health Matters in African Prisons

Health problems abound in prisons. This has historically been the case in all prison systems in all parts of the world, and African prisons are no different (Harding & Schaller, 1992). There is a pervasiveness of various infectious diseases in African prisons at rates many times higher than in the general populations in the countries the prisons are found in. The challenges to overcoming these health issues include overcrowding, poor living conditions, prison staffing problems, and lack of amenities (Nawa, 2009).

Generally, health studies in prisons focus on a particular country or a particular disease. There has not been enough focus on the health needs of prisoners. When there has been a focus on health issues in prison, this has mainly been on TB and HIV (Adjei, Armah, & Gbagbo, 2006; March, Coll, & Guerrero, 2000).

In the 21st century, there is more of an effort to focus on the health needs of prisoners. As a result, there have been many African prison health studies that have focused on HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis, and other diseases (Amon & Kasambala, 2009; Awofeso, 2010; Baussano, Williams, & Nunn, 2010). Those studies usually report on incidence levels of one or more diseases in those countries’ prisons such as in Ethiopia (Biadglegne, Rodloff, & Sack, 2014; Granich, Lo, & Suthar, 2011) and Zambia (Habeenzu, Mitarai, & Lubasi, 2007).

What needs more investigation is how prisoners’ health could be further improved, seeing as how inmates live in such close proximity to one another and how prisoners could be better protected against the spread of disease. What is clear is that African prisons as a whole have not taken the steps that other prison systems around the world have taken to deal with these problems. Certainly, more research is needed on whether the right to health according to international law standards is being respected in African prison systems.

One specific problem that appears to be pervasive across most prison systems is the prevalence of mental health problems that are possibly exacerbated by confinement. The result of overcrowding on prisoners’ mental ailments needs much more exploration in the African context. The high number of prisoners with mental health problems remains generally unnoticed and untreated. Research is needed to determine the extent of the problem, whether the problem was present at the beginning of the confinement, and how these problems are caused or exacerbated by confinement. With few exceptions, prison systems rarely have the resources or skills to deal with these issues, but solutions need to be found. South Africa is in this regard enacting legislation to try and keep persons with mental health problems out of prison.

Among others, problems due to the quality and quantity of food, water, sanitation—and lack of access to medical care and medicines, ventilation, space, exercise, and recreation activities—exacerbate health problems in prisons. As of 2014, Uganda was still using buckets for sanitation purposes at night, although the country’s government stated it was committed to end that practice within two years. However, there are other problems, including a lack of access to medical personnel. Medicine is often in short supply as well. Ameliorating such problems is usually seen to be a resource issue.

Generally, food served in prison remains a major ongoing problem. Many inmates receive only one meal a day. However, there are instances such as in Malawi in 2016, when prisoners went for days without food. Some countries, however, such as Morocco, exacerbate the food shortage problems by prohibiting the families of prisoners from bringing food for their incarcerated relatives. However, because access to food is such a problem, many prison systems allow families to provide food for their family members. The issue of relative food quality needs study, as well as how more acceptable food can lead to better prison conditions: prisoners have been found to get angry about issues relating to what they eat. Until now, how availability of hot water, more visits, access to cheap telephone communication, and the availability of other amenities affects prisoners’ mental states has received scant attention in African prisons. Some studies, such as one in particular that focused on Malawi, interviewed about 1,000 prisoners (Moloko et al., 2017). However, more work is needed to understand the views and perceptions of prisoners and how a lack of prison amenities this affects them in the variety of different African prisons (Dixey, 2015). Also more research is needed on the effect of harsh conditions in individual institutions and whether more humane conditions can positively affect violence and mental health levels. This could have positive benefits for prison life, but it could also have significant effects on inmates’ lives after they are released.

Women in African Prisons

Around the world about 6.5% of all prisoners are women. Rates vary per country from about 2% to 9% of the totals, but the percentage of confined women has risen at a much higher rate globally than for men (Walmsley, 2017). Africa’s proportion of female prisoners is much lower than in other continents at 3.4% of the total. The percentage of female prisoners in African countries generally ranges from 1% to 6%. Thus, African prisons generally confine fewer women than other parts of the world. However, the research seems to suggest that the percentage of women in the prison population is increasing. It has been found that the rate worldwide has increased from 5.3% in 2000 to 6.5% in 2015 (PRI, 2015).

The extent of the effects of confinement on women has largely remained under-researched until the 21st century (Agozino, 2005; Sarkin, 2008). The literature still reflects a bias toward men in prison research (Gear, 2010); however, now there is more literature on issues related to gender and women in African prisons. While some of the research is country based (such as Agboola [2016], who focused on South African prisons) there are the beginnings of a much greater focus on gender issues more broadly across the continent. There has been some work on a number of countries such as Ghana, but this has not been in the form of broad, detailed studies. As Agboola notes, the issues that affect women are overcrowding, healthcare, food, hygiene, sanitation, access to education and reading materials, prison work, and skills acquisition, as well as exercise, recreational facilities, and contact with the outside world. However, women can be affected by a range of other issues as well, including access to religious services (Akih & Dreyer, 2017). While it is known that women are vulnerable to sexual abuse by prison staff as well as other inmates, the extent of the levels of violence is unknown in different prisons. More work is emerging on issues such as women’s health problems (Dixey, Nyambe, & Foster, 2015). It does seem as though women in prison suffer from health problems more than men do (Dixey, 2015).

There are many problems for women in African prisons, although the extent of these problems depends on the country and which prison they are in. For many women, safety is a major concern. Mixed prisons previously were the norm in many places, which had negative consequences for women (Samakaya-Makarati, 2003). This is no longer true. Placing sentenced and unsentenced prisoners together, specifically for pretrial women prisoners, also had negative effects. The issue of keeping different types of prisoners, as far the seriousness of their offenses is concerned, is not often touched upon. As far as health matters are concerned, women often have limited access to sanitary and other hygiene needs.

Again, as with men, women in prison are more likely to come from marginalized, poor, minority, and indigenous groups. Much more research is needed in order to identify the prevalence of women in these groups and what types of crimes they are being confined for (Dastile, 2011). While generally large percentages of those women confined worldwide are being incarcerated for drug offenses, the extent of the situation is unknown for many of those in African prisons. States need this type of data to deal with such matters particularly because they affect women more often than men. States need much more information to determine when and how to reform their laws and their criminal justice systems. Without the necessary data and research, it is difficult for reform initiatives to be successful.

As noted earlier, the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (known as the Bangkok Rules) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2010. However, the extent to which they are being applied and implemented in African countries needs to be ascertained. What also needs to be looked at is the extent to which there is awareness about these rules and whether they are being applied.

Children in African Prisons

UNICEF estimates that more than 1 million children are detained in inhumane, abusive, and demeaning conditions around the world (Bochenek, 2016). Children comprise between 0.5% to 2.5% of prison populations. There are, however, some prison facilities that house much higher numbers of child prisoners. Children are often housed in the same prisons as adults, such as in Zambia, but there are more attempts to separate them.

The majority of child prisoners are awaiting trial, and some must wait for long periods. However, accurate data on children are hard to come by, especially for African countries. Some children have received exorbitant sentences for petty crimes. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia are among the countries that lock up children in the name of national security. Egypt has prosecuted dozens of children in military courts for political offenses. Zambia has no dedicated juvenile justice system, which can lead to children having to wait months or even years for their cases to be dealt with. Various countries around the world including Ethiopia treat some children as adults in criminal matters (Bochenek, 2016).

As a means to address the needs of children in Africa generally the AU adopted the African Charter for the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 1990. It has been ratified by 41 African states. It is useful that the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which has oversight of the African Child Rights Charter, in 2013 adopted a General Comment on the rights of children whose parents or caregivers are in confinement. It adopted a “best interest of the child approach” meaning that what is best for the child should be the central concern. What needs to be researched, however, is the impact of parental confinement on African children, the impact of the General Comment and whether states have heeded the call of the African Committee, and what can be done to ensure greater protection for such children.

Issues that need more comparative research relating to children in confinement relate to criminal responsibility issues across the continent. The age of responsibility varies among African countries, and there have been attempts to get more African states to adopt standards that reduce the age of responsibility in line with other countries. Another issue that needs more attention is the question of when children can be incarcerated. Thus, the issue of the best interests of the child ought to be taken up: for example, that should mean that confinement ought to be used as a last resort. Alternatives for how children can be dealt with by law need to be found. States need to be assisted to address this matter.


This article examines the extent to which there is knowledge and research on a range of issues concerning African prisons. These are important issues, since future policy and legislation reform will be dependent on good information to drive those changes. This article has argued that in general there is an absence of information on problems that exist in prisons across Africa. While African prisons are different all over the continent, they face a host of parallel challenges. These are not uniquely African problems but are problems that all prisons face. The article finds that African prisons suffer from similar inadequacies over the cataloguing and access to information necessary to reform their penal institutions. Resource limitations and a lack of will to devote more funds to them when there are competing demands for those scarce resources are major reasons why reform has not occurred. Such shortcomings have resulted in a range of problems including overcrowding, health issues, violence, and other human rights abuses. It is, however, overcrowding and its effects that may be the biggest problem facing prisons in Africa.

This article also notes that the predicament of vulnerable groups has not been the focus of much research, other than that of women and children, who are now subject to greater study. Thus, a range of groups and issues need much more inquiry.

While there are many institutions, instruments, and resolutions—both at an international and regional level—on issues relating to prisons, the extent to which they are having the desired effect is unclear. Research to find solutions to these challenges is needed but so are innovative ways to ensure they are translated from theory into practice.


Thanks to Tessa Assies for her assistance with this article.


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  • 1. Those being Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. See Walmsley (2016), p. 4.