WINDHOEK - As African correctional facilities continue bursting at the seams due to overcrowding, the Commissioner-General of the Namibian Correctional Service (NCS) Raphael Tuhafeni Hamunyela, is vigorously advocating for alternatives to imprisonment.
Under Namibia’s Criminal Procedure Amendment Act of 2010, community service is permissible as alternative punishment.
However, in a recent exclusive interview, Hamunyela said few courts were using it, citing a shortage of human resources to supervise offenders under this arrangement.
Observers say promiscuous use of custodial sentences by some Criminal Justice Systems is clogging many correctional facilities across the African continent, with many of them now known to be operating way beyond carrying capacity.
In Malawi – one of the countries with among the highest levels of congestion in correctional facilities in the world - overcrowding has been put down to a phenomenon in which people who have committed minor offences are sent to jail instead of being sentenced to community service.
Things got to a head in 2006 when the country’s Constitutional Court declared that the extent of overcrowding in some correctional facilities amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The top court urged the government of Malawi to take concrete steps to reduce the overcrowding by half and improve ventilation and prison conditions in general.
Now, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Malawi Prisons Inspectorate will this June support training of magistrates in different parts of the country on the use of alternatives to imprisonment when dealing with people who overstep legal boundaries.
This is in line with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures of 1990, commonly known as The Tokyo Rules which promote greater community involvement in the administration of criminal justice and in the treatment of offenders. Additionally, they promote a sense of responsibility towards society among offenders.
Hamunyela – a stickler for the humane treatment of offenders - believes that alternatives to imprisonment present many low-hanging fruits as Member States strive towards ending overcrowding in correctional facilities and upholding the dignity of inmates.
He revealed that in response to claims related to insufficient human resources to support community service sentences, NCS has for more than 14 years supervised convicts under this arrangement but uptake had remained low.
Be that as it may, Hamunyela remains passionate about alternative sentencing. In 2015, he made a presentation on its advantages and disadvantages to the Chief Justice of Namibia, who in return supported the full implementation of alternative sentences.
“The challenge is that NCS does not have enough officers to cover courts in all regions of Namibia. On the other hand, we are also experiencing challenges in regions where officers are placed as some magistrates are still hesitant to hand down community service sentences. Others claim that they do not have the authority to take that route,” Hamunyela said.
He added: “I believe that alternative sentences can spare a lot of people hardships and protect them from being exposed to many undesirable influences in custody.”
Hamunyela, who has studied law, said from a socioeconomic point of view, incarceration can be very costly for Member States and disruptive to families. “People behind bars need food, water, electricity and health care, among other things,” he said.
He argued that sentencing convicts to community service enables them to serve the community while also maintaining their families.
“Most importantly, on the correctional service side it helps us prevent overcrowding which can cause diseases,” he noted.
Thanks to Hamunyela’s relentless advocacy, a committee chaired by a Judge is now in place to consider alternative sentencing in Namibia. The NCS boss is advocating, also, for viodea conferencing to reduce heavy transport costs associated with moving offenders to and from court. Video conferencing would make it possible for offenders to appear in court while in their facilities.
“If this succeeds, it would ease a lot of hardships and financial constraints. Driving from Windhoek to Katima and back (about 2452km) for court, for example, is costly and time-consuming,” he said.
* Moses Magadza is Communications Officer at UNODC Regional Officer for Southern Africa.