By Nana Yaa Agyeman-Kwami and Joseph Armstrong Alorgbey, JHR-AUCC Chapter
When the outspoken journalist Ken Kuranchie was released from prison last week, he did not go home quietly. After spending 10 days in jail for contempt of court over his comments on the ongoing Supreme Court election trial (a sentence met with mixed reactions), the editor of the Daily Searchlight spoke publicly about the deplorable conditions in Ghana’s prisons and what should be done about them.
During his short sentence Mr. Kuranchie spent time in Nsawam Medium Security Prison in the Eastern Region, and Ho and Kete Krachi prisons in the Volta Region, giving him a unique perspective on the country’s prison system.
Journalists for Human Rights’ AUCC Chapter interviewed Mr. Kuranchie in his office earlier this week.
JHR: Describe life in prison.
K.K.: It’s very unpleasant. That is the way I would describe it.
They have a problem with overcrowding. I don’t know the size of this room (looks around small office), but this bigger than the cell in Ho prison. We were 19 people in the room. They lock us in at 5:30 in the evening and open up around 7:30 in the morning. More than 13 hours. And there was a shank in the room, a toilet, within the four walls. They stored food there, they stored all their worldly possessions in that room. So 19 people plus food, plus the toilet; there are lots of mosquitoes, lots of cockroaches and lots of bed bugs. Not even a pig should live like that.
JHR: What shocked you the most in prison?
K .K.: We had over about 400 inmates and the confines of the (Ho) prison were not good. The most shocking thing was their food.
JHR: What food was it?
K.K.: It was the porridge. I am having gari and milk now, and this very palatable (glances at his bowl of gari soakings and milk). But the corn porridge was lighter than water, very light, like soup. It was nothing to write home about. I took a bowl of it. It is something that will repulse you. If you eat that diet for a month, you are likely to lose your health.
JHR: Did you receive any special treatment from the inmates?
K.K.: Yes, all across, wherever I went. You know there was this thing on radio about me that they were shifting me around and so the people there knew who I was. So then they gave me preferential treatment.
JHR: No one gave you the “We are the boss here, you need to do this and that” treatment?
K. K.: No! They suddenly had an ambassador, someone who can go out there and speak on their behalf. So they were prepared to be nice to me so that when I go out there, I can speak out for them.
JHR: What did they want you to speak out on?
K. K.: There are a lot of innocent people in prison. I can cite at least four cases that, in my estimation, either they were innocent or the courts did not have enough to jail them.
JHR: Are there special cells in prison?
K. K.: A prisoner is a prisoner.
JHR: So this is same for Lawyer Tsatu Tsikata and the like?
K.K.: Tsatu, I went to look at his cell and the cell of Mr. Kwame Perprah. The only thing is that sometimes, some of us, because of our age and because of our lack of exposure to this type of thing, they leave you in the hands of the leaders. There are two grades of bureaucracy in prison. The prisoners themselves have a bureaucracy and the official government have theirs. I use to live with one leader in Nsawam. When I went to Ho, I had the same as when I was in Kete Krachi prison. I was not going to be able to survive in it, the ordinary prison life.
JHR: Do you have any idea where (inmates) get their money from?
K. K.: Well, Nsawam is a mini-city on its own. If you go in there, they have supermarkets, some shops, tailoring. There is a whole economy, although a lower economy, but it is an economy. People also visit and give the prisoners money. This is normally the source of income for prisoners in Nsawam.
When I was leaving, I left the little money I had on me for them.
JHR: On your interview on radio with Richard Menson of Citi fm 97.3, you made mention of your intent to mobilize journalists.
K. K.: I think we need to look at some of the conditions of our prisons. At a personal level, I know some of the decision-makers like the Ministry of Interior. I will talk to them and at least in a short term, we should be able to mobilize an ambulance, for instance, for Nsawam, and get them medication. If you are sick in Nsawam today, you are just one step away from death, because there is no medication. Not even for malaria which is prevalent there.
JHR: There is the perception that you are now a hero.
K. K.: Is this not really necessary. I am not a hero. I just want to get on with my work. I am not somebody who backs down easily when I think I am right. When am wrong it is always easy to get an apology out of me. When I believe what I wrote is right, I will stand for it. So it was just a situation that was offered and I spoke up. Maybe it was responsible, maybe it was irresponsible. But let’s not make a big deal out of this.
JHR: Many journalists have been convicted and incarcerated in prison. Perhaps, you may not be the last. This is a huge risk factor in the journalism profession.
K. K.: Let us hope that the next time if there is another person, they should believe in what they do and stand up for it, and this is just not in journalism. You know, if you are a Muslim for instance, it is a matter of belief and conviction that yours is the best religion. What was at stake was the principle of conviction—whether you should be jailed for believing in something. My point was that I believe they were hypocritical. Now they think that using the word hypocritical amount to maligning the court or bringing the reputation of the court low. My point is that was the use of hypocritical justified? If it is justified, can I in all fairness have the opinion that they were hypocritical? I think I am entitled to that.
JHR: Which amongst the three prisons in your experience was most horrifying and would recommend for a feature story?
K.K.: Go to Ho prison! That is the worse I saw. There are about 400 prisoners. If you go and see the conditions there, it makes me not proud to be Ghanaian. Any disease the prisoners get the officers get them too.
There was a gentleman who had heart problems when I was there. In the night he would be carried to the infirmary and back to his cell without medication.
JHR: What in your opinion can the government do to aid current situations in our prison?
K. K.: There is a lot the government can do. Basically, the problem in our prisons are infrastructure, and logistics. The prison administrators themselves use 1960s and 1970s. They have no computers. They are still using typewriters.
JHR: Does this experience daunt and haunt you?
K. K.: I have bad dreams about the conditions in which they live. I wish I can do something about immediately.
When you (journalists) get the opportunity, write about it and talk about it. As journalists, that is our only tool. Insist that something be done about it.
The interview has been edited and condensed.