Prison Overcrowding and the Drive to Accessing Criminal Justice in Tanzania

Genocide suspects in Rwanda.The prison facilities built by the United Nations on the outskirts of Arusha can accommodate 90 inmates. It also has a gym, a library, a dinning hall, medical room and rooms for conjugal visits.

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In Tanzania, prison congestion is a serious problem, just like in most Sub-Saharan African countries. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies’ World Prison Brief, the number of prisoners exceeds capacities in 28 out of 40 African countries.  In nine countries, occupancy levels are more than twice the capacity.

Although the prison population trend has been decreasing in Tanzania, in 2000, the population was 45,611; in 2006, it was 43,911; in 2013, it was 34,404; and in 2021, the prison population was 33,570. Still, this serious problem exists. With an official capacity of 29,760 as of April 2020, while the prison population is at 32,671 as of March 2022, the occupancy level is at 109.0% and a prison population rate of 50 per 100000 of the national population as of March 2020 as data from the ministry of home shows.

There are several reasons why this problem exists, and recommendations to tackle it are in place. President Samia, on the 15th of July 2023, while receiving the commission’s report she formed in 2022 headed by retired Chief Justice Othman Chande on criminal justice in Tanzania, among other things, stressed the immediate sweeping reforms to accelerate criminal justice, including reducing prison overcrowding in the country’s prisons and pre-trial detentions.

Also, read Tanzania’s Criminal Justice System: Analysis of President Samia’s Commission Key Findings & Recommendations.

Prison overcrowding is not only expensive but also inhumane. The recommendations by various penal reforms to decongest prisons should be taken immediately to address this problem.

A look at the State of Prison Institutions

Prison conditions remain harsh and unfit for human beings. There is poor lighting, poor sanitation, insufficient food and water, electricity, insufficient medical care with very limited treatment and no or delay of transportation to referral health centres with inadequate testing and medicine to clinicians who visit prisons periodically, pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners are often held together and not separated according to levels of offences or age, physical abuse of prisoners is common, and in most mentally ill prisoners are held together with other prisoners and female prisoners experience sexual harassment and in most cases do not have access to proper sanitary pads, and of course overcrowding is normal. Prisoners and inmates sleep in shifts, as in Mpanda prison in 2019.

These conditions are perfect for infection to inmates and detainees of diseases including tuberculosis, HIV AIDS, malaria, scabies and respiratory illnesses, as well as traumatic experiences which may lead to mental health disorders, loneliness, fear, loss of self-worth, loss of control of all aspects of life and jeopardizing personal characteristics which can result to difficult in rejoining society.

Recommendations to reduce prison overcrowding as postulated by the International Conference on Prison Conditions in Africa, LHRC and International Penal Review.

There have been recommendations from various national as recommended by Judge Othman Chande Commission on Criminal Justice in July 2023, regional and international penal reviews which are readily available that can be taken to reduce overcrowding in  Tanzania’s prison institutions and detention centres.

Some of the recommendations include overall training programmes for professionalism and discipline, the full utilization of community services and probation to first-instance petty offenders by local council courts as declared in 1996 by the International Conference on Prison Conditions in Africa, which produced a declaration that community service and other non-custodial measures be preferred to imprisonment where possible, the Ouagadougou Declaration with the Associate Action Plan to reduce prison population recommend partial or full sentence suspension, probation and correctional supervision, imprisonment imposed only for most serious offences and when no other sentence is appropriate and imprisonment last resort and shortest term possible.

Other recommendations are that sentencing practices be reviewed and monitored for consistency, early and conditional release schemes be expanded, furloughs be expanded, and home leaves be expanded based on health and age.

Measures should be put in place to enable the police, the courts and public officials to adequately assess the potential effects of detention or incarceration in the light of each circumstance, delays in investigations, constant adjournment of cases, misuse of loopholes in plea-bargaining, violation of rights of prisoners and remandees.

Also, read Yes, The DPP Strikes Again! Unanswered Questions in a High-Profile Tanzanian Prosecutorial Powers Case.

LHRC calls for the office of DPP to perform an oversight role of checking the quality and extent of evidence before admitting cases to courts, setting a minimum time within which a case has to be heard from the date it was filed. The Parole Board Act Cap 400 RE 2002 also stresses reducing the prison population in Tanzania.

Can We Identify and Prevent Crimes?

Although the recommendations are practical and, if initiated, can significantly reduce overcrowding, identifying and preventing crimes is a must if we are to reduce the number of prisoners in our country. Suppose families and schools taught from an early age instil proper manners in children. In that case, we will surely have a society that adheres to the rule of law, and its people will be good, law-abiding citizens, patriotic with social ethics and well-mannered.

Religious institutions and civil society organizations must continuously teach and guide society toward a holistic approach to life society members. The government and other stakeholders must create inclusive economic opportunities for all to access legal means of earnings.

This way, petty offenders and crimes will be prevented from being committed by members of the general public as there is a connection between poverty and crimes and deviance as well as upbringing and neglect by society to children who, in the long run, become petty offenders and criminals.

The state of prisons and detention centres in Tanzania is deteriorating, and conditions in most prisons and detention centres are getting worse, and crimes are being committed daily. It is high time that families and society take good care of our children to bring a generation of well-mannered, law-abiding citizens who will not engage in all kinds of unlawful activities.

Proper renovation of prisons and detention centres is necessary to keep inmates and detainees. Community services and non-custodial measures should be preferred to imprisonment where possible. Probation and correctional supervision must be fully utilized, and imprisonment should be imposed only for the most serious offences.

When no other is appropriate, as well as establishing probation and community service departments in all regions and districts, draconian laws that are undemocratic and discriminatory, which disproportionately disadvantaged persons living in poverty, be reserved and setting a minimum time within which a case has to be heard from the date it was filed thus making sure justice is served on time detainees are not being kept in detention centres for years.

These measures will reduce overcrowding in Tanzania’s prison institutions. They will also prevent people from having traumatic experiences and diseases, save the costs of keeping people in prisons and detention centres, and allow people to rejoin their families and loved ones.

hold a bachelor's degree in Public Relations and Marketing from St. Augustine University of Tanzania. I am currently working as a Hub Data Officer for Benjamin Mkapa Foundation at Usangi District hospital. I am an experienced Marketing and Sales professional where I have worked in this field for over 5 years. I have now worked in a PEPFAR HIV funded programme for over 3 years where I have been receiving various training and facilitation on the basics of comprehensive HIV care. I am passionate about traveling and creative writing and I am determined to learn more about writing to express my ideas that will inspire positive and constructive discussion in Tanzania for the welfare of the Tanzanian society.

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