Let’s open debate on correctional service

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THE decision to release 300 prisoners last week will serve to decongest Lesotho’s notoriously overcrowded jails.

However, only time will tell whether unleashing such a large number of ex-prisoners back into society in one swoop was a wise decision.

After serving time in jail it is our hope that these former inmates are returning as better members of society, fully rehabilitated to serve national good.

This is what prison should achieve.

At the same time we feel the release of the prisoners should not be used to mask the huge challenges facing the country’s justice system.

A 2003 report into the state of prisons compiled by former ombudsman Sekara Mafisa painted a very grim picture of Lesotho’s prisons.

The jails are seriously overcrowded.

The quality of food served to prisoners is atrocious with recent reports suggesting that prisoners are virtually starving.

Meat is scarce. Vegetables are also said to be in short supply.

Bedding is also in short supply with prisoners being forced to sleep on the floor and close to each other to generate warmth during bitter winters.

Skin diseases are also said to be rife.

Eight years after Makara penned that damning report we doubt that the situation has changed for the better.

In fact we fear it could be worse.

Based on these challenges it is not a surprise that serving time in Lesotho’s jails has been described as a “slow death sentence”.

But this should not be so.

We are aware that the government is battling a serious cash crunch due to falling revenues from the Southern African Customs Union.

Feeding prisoners could well be at the very bottom of the government’s priorities.

But we believe the government should still be concerned about what is happening behind the prison walls.

It is precisely for this reason that we are calling for a fresh look at the prisons to address the plight of prisoners.

We think Lesotho needs unfettered national debate on how to reform its prison system.

We also hope the decision to release the prisoners was not because the government has failed to feed them.

To deal with the current challenges the government must look at fresh ways of utilising the latent labour force within prisons.

Prisoners must not be allowed to be idle. They must grow their own food.

We must seek to utilise their capacities by getting them busy in productive endeavours.

This is critical if we are to empower them to be self-sufficient once they finish serving their terms.

Apart from farming prisoners can be taught to mine sandstone which is abundant in Lesotho.

Besides empowering prisoners with these skills the government must look at fresh ways of decongesting our jails without compromising the justice system.

The cases of prisoners languishing in prison for years without trial, as mentioned in the ombudsman’s report, should never be allowed to happen.

Suspects deserve speedy trials.

It is also critical that our courts look at alternative ways of punishing offenders other than sending them to jail.

We think non-custodial sentences on less serious crimes will help lessen the problem of overcrowding in our jails.

The open prison system, which has been in use in a number of countries in Africa and Europe for years, has also proved quite effective in reducing overcrowding in prisons elsewhere.

Offenders who are convicted of “less serious” crimes could also be sentenced to community service.

These suggestions are by no means exhaustive.

But they provide a starting point for vigorous national debate on how we can reform our correctional services.

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