As in the rest of Africa, prisons in East Africa are severely overcrowded.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies’ World Prison Brief, the number of prisoners exceeds capacity in 28 out of 40 African countries. In nine countries occupancy levels are operating at more than twice capacity. The occupancy rate of prisons in Tanzania is 124% and in Kenya and Uganda it is over 200%. This is largely the result of excessive use of pre-trial detention and disproportionate prison sentences.
Approximately half of those detained at any one time are awaiting justice. Pre-trial detainees represent 52% of prisoners in Uganda, 52% in Tanzania and 36% in Kenya. Many will spend months and even years in detention – without being tried or found guilty.
Large numbers of those sentenced to prison receive relatively short prison sentences for minor offences. Research conducted by PRI in East Africa in 2012 showed that people are imprisoned for offences ranging from using abusive language and operating without a valid business licence to desertion of a child and unlawful gambling. It is likely that at least some of these offences could be dealt with in a more effective and cost-efficient way than a prison sentence.
We have a strong record of working in partnership with governments and NGOs to develop non-custodial measures in Africa, as well as to promote good prison management. In the early 1990s we assisted with the development of community service in Zimbabwe and subsequently worked in a number of countries in East Africa to help establish Community Service Orders (CSOs) as an alternative to imprisonment.
Thanks in part to PRI’s work, the use of Community Service Orders (CSOs) increased. For example, CSOs given by magistrates in Kenya rose from 3,000 orders in 1990 to 55,000 in 1997. However, in the last few years, there has been a sharp decline, and in 2012, we started work to help identify the reasons why this had happened. In partnership with probation and aftercare services and civil society partners, we are seeking to address the challenges that are currently preventing greater use of community service and other alternatives to imprisonment, including pre-trial measures.
What we are doing
We are helping to address decongestion in prisons in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania by developing models of good practice, and by providing training and technical assistance to promote the use of alternatives. We also facilitate the sharing of good practice and expertise within the wider region.
- We publish information and research about alternatives, including Alternatives to imprisonment in East Africa: trends and challenges and a resource pack Making Community Service Work: A Resource Pack from East Africa.
- We are supporting the development of a Model of excellence for Community Service Orders (CSOs), together with the Kenya Department of Probation and Aftercare Service. This will identify the success factors for implementation of community service orders, as well as challenges and good practice.
- We conduct seminars, roundtables and training workshops for magistrates and prison personnel on alternatives to imprisonment.
- We are supporting the development of an African Network on Alternatives to Imprisonment. This network intends to link officials and professionals in countries that already have non-custodial programmes with those that have shown an interest. It will enable the exchange of good practice, experience and collaboration.
- To support civil society in the region, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (Uganda) and PRI are establishing an e-network of NGOs in order to share information, good practice and enable collaboration in the promotion of alternatives to imprisonment.