(17th May 2012) PRI Associate Rob Allen writes from Dar es Salaam
Arriving in Dar last Sunday, much of Tanzania seemed engrossed in the dramatic finale of the English premier league. Meanwhile, at the Mbeza Garden Hotel some forty magistrates were registering for the first of two training courses on alternatives to prison sponsored by PRI. Run in conjunction with the Probation and Community Service Department, the training forms part of PRI’s work to reduce prison congestion in East Africa – a key strand of the Programme Partnership agreement with the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID).
A PRI assessment last year revealed the need for the judiciary to be reminded – or, in some cases, informed for the first time – about the community-based sentencing options available to them. With some 1500 magistrates operating in primary, district and resident magistrates’ courts, the task of awareness-raising is a formidable one, made easier only by the fact that alternative sentences are currently only available across about half the country. Our two courses were aimed at Magistrates from the Dar region, where 35 probation officers, almost half the total staff, work to produce social inquiry reports about offenders, supervise probation orders and find and monitor community service placements.
As with most conferences the set piece presentations, (almost all given, to our surprise, in Swahili), were less interesting than the exchanges between participants. These revealed that a number of magistrates had not seen the Community Service Act of 2002, let alone applied it, and others who were reluctant to impose non-custodial penalties for fear of being accused of leniency by their seniors or corruption by the general public. We learned too that busy magistrates under pressure to reduce delays will sometimes dispose instantly of a case with a prison sentence rather then adjourn for an assessment report – a surely unintended consequence of otherwise laudable efforts to speed up the justice system.
As a result of such judicial ambivalence, the majority of community service orders are not made by a conventional sentencing court. Instead a provision in the law allows the prisons to nominate eligible inmates to be reconsidered for Community Service by probation and the courts. At least three months are usually spent in prison before such reconsideration takes place. There were complaints from probation that prison officers were sometimes unwilling to nominate suitable prisoners who were needed to stay and work in the prison, telling them to wait instead for the possibility of an amnesty under which they would be released without any obligation to do unpaid work.
Magistrates, on the other hand, expressed concern about seeing offenders whom they had sentenced to prison a few weeks earlier, doing cleaning work around the court premises, their release having been authorised by one of their colleagues.
Although most community service offenders come from prisons, many of their offences appear relatively minor. The most common included illegal fishing, touting for customers, using abusive language and operating unauthorised businesses, as well as simple theft. That people charged with and convicted for such matters are being remanded and sentenced to jail reflects an undeniably punitive strand in criminal policy and practice, a strand which also sees corporal punishment still used in cases of rape and armed robbery alongside draconian mandatory minimum prison terms.
Tackling underlying punitive attitudes is undoubtedly a long-term project but shorter-term progress in reducing unnecessary imprisonment can undoubtedly be made by initiatives such as PRI’s programme of training. The importance of doing so was starkly illustrated by a visit to Segera remand prison. Opened in 1991 to accommodate 900 detainees and prisoners, it currently holds more than 1800 men women and children in spartan conditions with physical space and water in short supply. If nothing else, the visit confirmed the folly of seeking to build one’s way out of overcrowding and the urgency of strengthening alternatives to prison.
Click to read a report on the trainings conducted by PRI