Talk delivered by

Most Rev. Peter K. Sarpong,
Archbishop of Kumasi

At the
International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care Congress

Prisons in the Third Millennium Challenge the Church, State and Society

Ireland -5th-12th September, 2003



We are all born free, indeed in the image and likeness of God himself (cf. Gen. 1: 26). Unfortunately, often we are in bondage We can be slaves to ourselves. We are sometimes slaves to our physical bodies; often we are slaves to the environment and at other times we are slaves to our brothers and sisters to whom we may be indebted. We can be slaves to the State, we are sometimes slaves to power but, above all, we can be slaves to our own self­righteousness. All this, in Christian terms, is due basically to our state of original sin. Once we mention sin, then we are talking about slavery to self since it was the worship of ourselves that ended our forefathers in the dreadful disruption of the Friendship between them and their Creator.


Social Sin

The slavery due to ourselves often has a repercussion on our society. We are gregarious by nature, our social character is not just a trait, it is essential. Without other people, we would not be human beings. Our human nature is fully actualised when we interact with other human beings, accept our obligations in society, take part in rituals in society, acknowledge our rights, follow the traditions of our society; in other words when we are cultured. But our enslavement of ourselves often makes us act against our nature as social beings and so commit acts that are disapproved by the rest of society. These acts are sometimes brushed aside as inconsequential to the overall good of society. But some of these acts too are so serious that they need to be punished.

Forms of Punishment

Every society has, over the years, devised ways of dealing with aberrant citizens in these societies, citizens who do not follow the norms and regulations made by the society or even by nature for the survival of society and for the decent living of its citizens.

  The penalties for disapproving behaviour have been varied and differently graded. In Africa, we have had punishments in the form of ridicule, ostracism, whipping, torture, fines, labour, abandonment, burning, decapitation, etc. Imprisonment, interestingly, has not been very traditional in Africa. One of the reasons is that the crimes thought to merit imprisonment are crimes that are taboos and the perpetrators must, therefore, not be tolerated. Society must be rid of them if the spiritual overlords are to be pacified. Moreover, the society is not prepared to feed somebody who has offended it in such a grave manner. Where, like my own society, the Asante, imprisonment has been employed, the aim has been to preserve the human beings caught in war, for example, For sacrifices in the future or for sate.


Rationale for Imprisonment

This brings us to the rationale behind imprisonment. All of us know this. Imprisonment has been resorted to as revenge. One pays for one's actions in the form of tit for tat or tooth for tooth or eye for eye. You do something evil in the society and you are punished for it. But imprisonment too has a corrective character. It is hoped that the person going to prison will come out reformed. To this effect, trade and other skills are taught in prison. Imprisonment has also a protective effect. It shields the society from dangerous elements, which could be a menace to it, such as murderers, rapists and robbers. Modern Africa has wickedly invented a new type of imprisonment, the preventive detention. This type of imprisonment is presumably and cynically meant to protect the prisoner from the anger of those who are supposed to be offended by him who would otherwise be tempted to take the law into their own hands by revenging when they see him free. At the end of the day, however, preventive detention is only a very clever camouflage for power-drunken leaders to get rid of citizens who have dared to challenge their authority or are suspected to be capable and prepared to do so. Imprisonment provokes in people the sentiment of vengeance It also generates aversion from prisoners so that even when they are released, they are not acceptable in their homes. It comes to ostracism.


Causes of Imprisonment

But what are the causes of imprisonment? They are legion, indeed impossible to enumerate. People know the consequences for bad behaviour and yet every society has prisons to take in criminals. Why? The answers are many. Some people are inclined towards evil and crime and they almost cannot help it People such as sex perverts and kleptomaniacs are simply sick. Some succumb to peer pressure to commit crime; some are lured into the action before they realise its implication, some are simply deceived; some are driven by anger, shame, desire to revenge, and so on, to commit one crime or other.


Crime-Inducing Poverty

But for Africa, I would like to place poverty at the hub of the causes of criminality. Poverty in Africa can be abject and dehumanising. It is often such that it makes young men and women desperate. They must eat but where do they get the means from? The only way out for them is to commit crime, whether it be prostitution or drug trafficking or robbery or extortion or whatever.


Brain Drain

Poverty is the mother of the brain drain, which takes away the best human skills from our countries, rendering our poverty-stricken nations even more miserable. Many African young people now leave their countries for Europe and America in search of greener pastures. Some are lucky enough to get jobs but some have no hope of ever being employed and must fall on crime for survival. There is no prison in any big city in Europe where you cannot find a Ghanaian of this nature.


Poor Prices for Raw Materials

Poverty results from poor prices offered by rich nations for our raw materials. In the latter part of the 70s and early 80s, one ton of cocoa was selling for £3,000, now it is around £800. The result is that if in those days one could buy a car for £3,000, then one had only to produce one ton of cocoa and one had a car. Now, by that calculation alone, one has to produce more than 3 tons of cocoa and, what is worse, the car does not cost £3,000 anymore. It costs £12,000 and so one has to produce more than 12 tons to acquire what one could acquire in 1978 with one ton. The land is the same for the cultivation of the cocoa except that the yield has gone down considerably because in the course of the years, the land has become more and more infertile. How can any nation, which depends upon gold for its livelihood, ever hope to be economically solvent when the price of gold vacillates between S220 and S360 per fine ounce? To make a reliable budget becomes a problem and this is the lime when the populations of African countries are increasing.


The Result of Poverty

The result of poverty is disease and hunger. Disease prevents people from working. Because they cannot work, they become hungry. because they are hungry, they become sick. The circle is vicious. It leads to crime and crime leads to prison.

  African prisons are simply deplorable, they are not worthy of human habitation. And yet in Ghana we have prisoners who are discharged one day and in 5 days' time are back to the prison. When you ask them why they do not desist from what they are doing and save themselves from constant imprisonment, they have a very interesting reply. they want to he br prison. At least in prison, they can get food to eat. And here is a country where it is only recently that the amount spent on the prisoner's food per day is ¢1,500. ¢01,500 is one-sixth of a U.S. dollar, about 17 cents. And if an adult finds it more convenient to be fed on 17 cents a day than to go home, then one can imagine the state of poverty that the prisoner meets at home which he cannot accept any more.


Challenge to the Church

All this throws a tremendous challenge to the Church. The Church it is that has the duty to educate the people to accept their relatives who have been imprisoned and not reject them. After all, those in prison are not necessarily the worst criminals in society. The hardened, pathological criminals are often able to avoid detection or to buy their way through.

  Here again, the painfulness of poverty in terms of imprisonment becomes clear. Sometimes judges simply misjudge cases and have innocent people imprisoned. Sometimes the number of judges to handle cases is woefully inadequate, the government just cannot pay many judges. The result is that cases cannot be handled expeditiously. We end up with people remaining in remand for 5 or 6 or even many more years. Another effect is that they become corrupt and involve themselves in travesty of justice, imprisoning people who should be freed and leaving scot-free those whose freedom should be denied then through incarceration.

Yes, whilst poverty may not account for the whole incidence of imprisonment, it plays a very considerable part in it. Therefore, in the 3th millennium, it is hoped that the Church will double up her efforts to preach the gospel of mercy, the gospel of compassion, the gospel of life, the gospel of sensitivity to one another, the gospel of hard work, with a view to

  1. sensitising the rich. whether they be the nations or individuals, to come to the assistance of the poor.

2. showing the way, to especially the youth, to self-reliance in their own environment.

  3. involving herself in that type of formal education that would be relevant to the economic situation of the people.

  4. insisting that Africans have holy and saintly Heads of State and politicians who profoundly love their own people and wish to serve rather than be served (cf. Ecclesia in Africa, No. 111), to use the words of Pope Paul VI.

  5. encouraging African nations to develop an efficient, incorruptible, hard working judiciary.

  6. pointing out to African nations the folly of useless fratricidal wars that bring in their wake such evils as famine, epidemics and destruction, not to mention massacres and the scandal and tragedy of refugees, as the pope would put it. It is a fact that at the end of civil wars, the incidence of aimed robbery, for example, goes up.

  7. advising African governments to look after their national patrimony with care, fear of the Lord and love of the neighbour. African leaders should be implored to desist from embezzlement of huge sums of money which they can plough into national development and prevent crime leading to imprisonment. Most leaders, if they were honest, would admit that they, rather than the so-called public criminals, should be imprisoned. African governments must embark on projects and economic plans that would do away with unemployment and would bring in an improvement in the quality of life of the people.

8 emphasising the indispensable role families should play as the first school of prevention of imprisonment. Families should do all they can to bring up the child in such a way that the resulting adult is responsible and God-fearing. Adults must realise that sin is self­imprisonment, even if one is not caught committing it.

  9. pointing out clearly to individuals that in justice to their dignity as children of God, created in his own image and likeness, they must live according to their nature and work for their living.

  10. impressing on the rich nations another vital part they have to play. They must realise how their refusal to offer lust prices for poor nations' raw materials is contributing enormously to the latter becoming abjectly poor. Moreover, it is a condemnable fact that rich nations continue to sell arms to gullible Africans to engage themselves in senseless, internecine conflicts and hostilities. After these wars, what can be expected but misery and poverty? It has been pointed out how civil wars in Africa have always been followed by poverty, refugeeism, displacement of people, armed robbery and all kinds of crimes.


Personal Experience

To sum up, I know some of you know the story. It happened to me personally. I was going to South Africa in August 2000 for 2 meetings, one organised by the Papal Council for Justice and Peace on poverty and reduction of poverty, reconciliation and peace. Before the end of that meeting to be held in Swaziland, f would leave for another meeting organised by the International Committee on Prisons in South Africa. There t would give a talk on the theological aspect of the theme connected with prisons. When I arrived at Johannesburg airport, I was picked up by a friend. On arrival at her house. 5 healthy men pounced on us and at gunpoint deprived me of everything I had And there was I going to speak about Justice and Peace.



South Africa, during apartheid days, was the topic of the day. Everybody condemned the inhuman system of apartheid. That political monster is no longer there but the substitute is worse. Social crime has become so rampant and so bad that in a country of about less than 50 million inhabitants, 40,000 cases of rape had been recorded in 8 months that year. How do we prevent imprisonment and degradation of the human person in such situations?

I have no doubt in my mind that it is the Church s duty, this millennium to proclaim in this culture of death, leading to poverty and degradation, what Pope John Paul II calls the Gospel of Life in all its forms, welcome or unwelcome.



  I. What can the Church do in a situation where people wan to go to prison for various reasons:

(a) bad as prison conditions are, they are better than conditions at home?

(b) they are rejects in society and considered a disgrace to society and, especially, to their families and friends?

(c) they themselves believe that this is the only way to prevent them from committing crime, leading to imprisonment?

  2. Among the causes of imprisonment which was not mentioned in the talk is conscientious objection to war or to some order or law of the State. What are your views on this from the point of view

(a) of the State

(b) of the nature of society, and

(c) of the individual?

  3. What can the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care do to impress upon the minds of governments and rich nations that poverty is a chief cause of crime, leading to imprisonment and that every effort should be made on the part of Governments to desist from policies, principles and actions that impoverish people rather than enrich them?