Madi Jobarteh

(JollofNews) – On Monday February 13, the ministers of the Interior and Justice visited the main prison compound in the Gambia at Mile 2.

This is the first of its kind in modern Gambia to have such high level state officials visit the prisons. What is even more historic about the visit was when Interior minister Mai Ahmad Fatty publicly apologized to an inmate for the poor conditions and inhumane treatment meted out to the prisoner.

While this is indeed a good gesture in the right direction, it is however important to emphasize that this gesture must now lead to definite and concrete steps to address the shortcomings in our justice delivery system.

The appalling conditions in the prisons must not be a surprise to any Gambian given that the Yaya Jammeh Dictatorship had purposely intended to keep the place as hell on earth for the purpose of destroying the rights and dignity of fellow citizens. Hence if the rationale for the ousting of that dictatorship is to be justified, there is no better place to reform than the prisons in the Gambia.

The justice delivery system is a combination of policies, laws, institutions and processes, which are being managed by public servants for the purpose of ensuring the protection of the rights of Gambians. These two ministries as well as the Judiciary are the critical institutions in the justice delivery system. Within these ministries are the police, AG’s Chambers and the prisons that serve as the lead agencies in the justice delivery system. Hence when these ministers visited the prisons it sends a very clear signal in the right direction.

When a person violates the rights of citizens or threatens the survival of the Gambia as a nation or the functioning of the state, such a person has violated the laws of the Gambia. For that matter there must be accountability or redress to ensure that the damaged law or right is repaired in full. It is at this point that the Gambia Police Services under Section 19 is empowered to effect arrest, investigation and prosecution of that suspect who broke the law or violated the right. That process could eventually lead to the courts where the suspect is accorded fair trial according to Section 24 so that the courts can determine the innocence or guilt of the person. In the event of a decision of guilty as charged, the suspect is finally sentenced to a period of time in the prisons. Hence the prisons can be considered as the final destination of our criminal justice system.

Main Yard

In light of the above therefore, one can see how the Ministry of Interior under which is the Gambia Police Services has a direct role in determining who eventually goes to prison or not. Hence the Ministry of Interior, under which is also the Gambia Prisons Services must take responsibility to ensure that our prisons are in line with international standards. As the ministry responsible for law enforcement, which is nothing other than the protection of the rights and freedoms of Gambians, therefore the Ministry of Interior bear responsibility to ensure that the rights of each and every prisoner is respected and protected. Prisoners are human beings and then Gambians and therefore they enjoy their full human rights like any other citizen. Where such rights must be restricted by virtue of their imprisonment, such restrictions must still abide by human rights norms and standards.

Therefore when Minister Mai Ahmad Fatty visited the prisons, he is clearly fulfilling his role as the chief law enforcement officer of the Gambia. Such a visit should therefore go quite extensively to look into the existing policies, laws, processes, conditions and structures of the police and the prisons services to ensure the effective protection of human rights.

In terms of the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General, one can also see the direct and indispensable role of this ministry in the justice delivery system. In the first place Section 72 subsection 2 identifies the Attorney General as the principal legal adviser to the Government who shall have the right of audience in all courts in the Gambia.

Under Section 85 subsection 1, the constitution states that ‘the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) shall have power in any case in which he or she considers it desirable to do so, and subject to the approval of the Attorney General’. Subsection 4 went further to state that in the exercise of his or her functions under Section 85, ‘the Director of Public Prosecutions shall be subject to the direction or control of the Attorney General’.

The functions of the DPP are spelt out in Section 85 subsection 1(a) which among others, is ‘to initiate and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court for an offence against the laws of The Gambia.’ Furthermore, in terms of the prerogative of mercy or presidential pardon for prisoners under Section 82, the Attorney General is a principal member of a committee set up to advice the president.

Once again, one can see the direct involvement of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General in determining who goes to prison. Hence the visit by the Minster of Justice Aboubacarr Tambadou is highly relevant, necessary and timely. The point therefore that must be emphasized is that both Mai Ahmad Fatty and Aboubacarr Tambadou as the highest officials in the justice delivery system must continue to visit all prisons and detention centres. Fundamentally they must ensure that Gambian prisons meet up with international standards. These standards already exist known as the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Cell at the maximum wing

Aside of these standards, one must also highlight that the need to ensure humane and human rights-friendly prisons is a moral and political question facing each and every one of us, more so the current political leadership of the Gambia. Yaya Jammeh called Mile 2 his ‘Five-Star Hotel’ and illegally incarcerated the best sons and daughters of the nation in there. On the basis of these severe violations, the opposition parties formed a Coalition to successfully oust him. For that matter, the Barrow Administration therefore has a moral obligation to cleanse our prisons knowing full well that many of the Coalition leaders where themselves dumped in those dungeons for considerable periods of time. Some succumbed to the bad conditions and the tortures while others continue to live with the scars and trauma of that sordid experience. It is therefore incumbent on this government to prove to Gambians and the world that indeed they are better than Yaya Jammeh and APRC by ensuring that our prisons meet international standards.

In ensuring the adherence to these minimum standards, it is necessary to review in order to reconstitute the Prison Service under Section 182 as well as the Prisons Services Council under Section 184. Given that for many years the Prison Service is headed by David Colley as the Commissioner of Prisons whose role is defined under Section 183, it is fair to say there is no justification for this man to continue to head Gambian prisons. The appalling living conditions in the prisons and the inhumane experiences of inmates go to tell the poor control and administration of prisons in the Gambia under David Colley. Mr. Colley has indeed failed his constitutional responsibilities and therefore caused untold suffering and destruction of the rights of inmates with impunity. I would urge both the Interior and Justice ministers to undertake an entire overhaul of the prison services to ensure the dignity of Gambians.

God Bless the Gambia.

By Madi Jobarteh