Ghana, August 2023 – “Without a decent life in prison, any other reformation activity will not have a good impact on the inmates. Because if someone is hungry, there is no way he will listen to you. If you demean the person, there is nothing you can tell the person that will make him change or even engage in any activity that could be of help to him in the future, so he will leave the prison worse than he came.”
Superintendent Bright Kwame Dogbatse is one of 69 prison officers in Ghana who recently took part in UNODC’s specialized training focused on promoting human rights and fostering rehabilitation in prisons, in line with the Nelson Mandela Rules.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, serve as a global benchmark for the humane treatment of individuals in custody. They emphasize the importance of maintaining the dignity and well-being of prisoners, facilitating their reintegration into society, and safeguarding their fundamental rights.
These 69 officers have also been trained as trainers, and have now returned to their stations across Ghana, beginning the work of disseminating the Nelson Mandela Rules countrywide.
For Supt Dogbatse, the training he received has been vital both for his own professional development, and as a way to increase the positive impact he can have on the lives of the prisoners he supports. “I have been working in the prison service for close to 11 years now and I believe I have the capacity and interest to do well and to help change the people that are brought to prison.”
Like Supt Dogbatse, Assistant Superintendent Daniella Ekua Bonney was inspired by the difference she could make as a prison officer. “Before I joined the prison service, I watched a documentary concerning prisons where an inmate was falsely accused of committing a crime and imprisoned for 25 years. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a prison officer and through that I would go to law school so I can help the less privileged.”
Today, ASP Bonney is a paralegal prison officer in the prison service. She shared how her training on the Nelson Mandela Rules has enhanced her understanding of prisoners' rights and influenced her interactions with inmates. "The Nelson Mandela Rules are very important because the rights and needs of inmates are protected.”
While the implementation of local training has not been straight forward – ASP Bonney explained challenges in officers’ availability and in ensuring that the right people attended – she has persevered, and has seen how attitudes change over the course of the training she provides.
By day two, she says, “the trainees were eager to know more about the Nelson Mandela Rules, so when time was not even due for lessons they would ask to go get the place ready for class because they were keen to share their ideas and experiences.”
She hopes that future training can be even more impactful, seeking to focus on the application of the knowledge the trainees have gained.
Deputy Superintendent Stephen Okai Aboagye, the coordinating officer for UNODC trainings for the Ghana Prisons Service, says that signs are positive that the training will make a real impact.
“Throughout the training sessions most of the officers told me they were not aware of certain rules, an example being conjugal visits, and rules against collective punishments. They stated that some of these rules were not known to them and due to the trainings they have been enlightened and will put a stop to certain acts in the prison service.”
For him, the work of the service with UNODC is a key element of Ghana’s progress in improving prison management, improving system-wide skills and knowledge in human rights and international standards.
The commitment demonstrated by these prison officers exemplifies a growing trend within the correctional system – transforming punitive approaches into rehabilitative ones. By embracing the Nelson Mandela Rules, these officers are not only contributing to the well-being of prisoners but also working towards reducing recidivism rates and creating safer communities across Ghana.
Challenges remain; DSP Aboagye says that officers still face real challenges explaining to those outside the service that their role is not to imprison and punish, but to support change.
Nevertheless, as the correctional system continues to develop, the experiences, dedication and commitment to the implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules of prison officers like DSP Aboagye, Supt Dogbatse and ASP Bonney provide inspiration.
"The purpose of the prison service is not just to lock people who have offended and release them when it is time for them to leave,” Supt Dogbatse says, “but rather to prevent them from going back to their old ways and help them reintegrate into society.”
This work took place as part of a comprehensive three-year project on “Strengthening the Compliance of the Ghana Prisons Service with the Nelson Mandela Rules” funded by the US State Department.