By Petronella Sibeene
Namibia has one of the highest incarceration rates in Southern Africa with the current prison population standing at 4 500 inmates.
President Hifikepunye Pohamba said this during the launch of the Namibia Prison Services Day on Tuesday. He revealed that for every 100 000 Namibians, there are 260 prisoners.
Currently, most of the prisons across the country are overcrowded and this, according to Pohamba, calls for an urgent solution.
The Grootfontein Prison is overcrowded with a huge 91.43 percent; the Windhoek Central Prison is overflowing with 48.57 percent, Omaruru Prison by 57.63 percent and the Walvis Bay Prison by 48.57 percent.
The Ombudsman’s “Special Report on Prevailing Conditions in Police Cells” states that in places like Rundu Police Station, the five cells that were meant to accommodate 50 prisoners are congested with a current 117 detainees, leaving the building in a dilapidated state. Furthermore, the report reads that toilets are not enough and general conditions of facilities are very bad.
Given the situation, one of the options that must be considered the president emphasised, is the introduction of community service programmes to serve as punishment for non-serious offenders.
It is widely accepted practice that the correctional service system should not only focus on incarceration. Equally important is the rehabilitation of offenders so that they return to society as useful citizens after they have served their sentences.
Official statistics have shown that more than 80 percent of inmates are in prison on account of non-serious or what could be considered petty offences.
Large numbers of petty offenders are placed together with prisoners who have committed serious crimes, thus turning petty offenders into hard-core criminals.
“I believe that the introduction of community service orders for non-serious crimes could drastically reduce the prison population in Namibia” Pohamba said. The programme will also lessen the exposure of young people who commit minor crimes to hardened offenders sentenced for serious crimes.
In Namibia, the provision of community service orders to replace prison sentences has been in the status books for so many years but this policy has remained dormant due to a lack of mechanisms to enforce it. Ultimately, over the years, there has been unnecessary overcrowding of prisons countrywide, which could have been avoided if community service was used as a rehabilitative punishment for non-serious first-time offenders.
So far, the Community Service Orders Scheme has started on a pilot basis in the Caprivi, Kavango, Kunene and Oshana regions. The programme will be rolled out to other regions across the country.
“There is no doubt that community service orders can also serve as an effective tool in our efforts to rehabilitate offenders so that they can abandon their offending behaviour,” the president reiterated.
Through such efforts, inmates are given an opportunity to acquire new skills such as welding, plumbing, bricklaying and other vocational skills. Several literacy programmes are also provided to enable inmates to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.
Considering that some members of the public have voiced concern with regard to costs incurred by government in keeping inmates behind bars, Pohamba applauded the Namibian Prison Services for embarking on agricultural projects. He specifically acknowledged progress made at Divundu Open Farm Prison in the Kavango Region.
Livestock farming at Farm Scott is progressing well while lucerne and vegetable farming is being produced at Hardap Prison, the President said.
He urged Prison Services to develop effective marketing plans for selling their surplus products they produce.
During the 2005/6 period, agricultural activities contributed more than N$2-million to the ministry.
The President at the same occasion noted that the work of those involved in managing prisons every day does not go unnoticed. While they face some unruly elements who cause disruption through acts of violence and aggression, Pohamba urged them to work hard within the parameters of the law to ensure that the mandate is carried out and to contribute to the general maintenance of law and order in the country.
This was the first time the Namibia Prisons Service held a commemoration of this sort. In 2004, Cabinet approved a submission by the then Ministry of Prisons and Correctional Services to declare 27 March as Namibia Prison Services Day.
The day creates awareness of the vital role that correctional service institutions play in society, particularly in law enforcement activities.