UNDP’s Access to Justice and Rule of Law Project supports rule of law forums in five states. The forums bring together justice officials and members of the different state-level rule of law institutions to improve coordination and collaboration between rule of law institutions so that they can discuss and address challenges that affect the provision of justice services. The forums also provide an inclusive community-based space to enable direct engagement between non-governmental associations, community members, and local and state authorities to address concerns related to the administration of justice. As leaders of the rule of law institutions, forum members are positioned to implement reforms that will have a tangible effect on the problems discussed during monthly meetings.
In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, the rule of law forum has prioritized prison overcrowding as an issue that requires urgent intervention. “Various factors have led to the overcrowding of prisons in Northern Bahr el Ghazal,” Joseph Marko, director of legal administration in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State and the chair of the rule of law forum, explains the grim situation of the prison systems in Northern Bahr el Ghazal. “There are not enough judges at the High Court in Aweil, and often they are not able to process the cases as quickly as they would like. Sometimes inmates are detained for many months while they wait for a trial date. Other inmates are unable to pay the fines or debts that form part of their sentence and the result is a prolonged sentence.”
Many of the prisons in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state have exceeded their capacity. The conditions in Aweil Central Prison are particularly difficult. Mr. Marko adds, “The overcrowding of prisons can lead to the outbreak of disease, cramped and inhumane living conditions, and shortages of food and medicine.” As of September 2015, there were 636 inmates at Aweil Central Prison, which has the capacity to hold 100-150 inmates. Approximately 35 inmates were allocated to each cell, with some forced to sleep outside on the ground due to a lack of space. In addition to shortages of food and medicine, the large number of inmates has strained the prison’s plumbing system and caused waste to contaminate the inmates’ living quarters and water supply.
The Northern Bahr el Ghazal rule of law forum has successfully drawn attention to the overcapacity of prisons in the state, leading to the release of 57 inmates who were arbitrarily detained at Aweil Central Prison and Wanjok Prison, as well as commitments from the judiciary, prosecutors, the government, and other rule of law actors to address the underlying systemic factors that lead to the oversubscription of prisons.
Following site visits to Aweil Central Prison and Wanjok Prison, the rule of law forum held a special meeting with the Acting Caretaker Governor Honourable Akot Deng Akot and Deputy Governor Honourable Deng Deng Akuei on 24 September 2015 to brief them on the number of inmates at Aweil Central Prison, conditions in the prison, and factors leading to the overcapacity of prisons in the state, including a shortage of judges, delays in processing cases, the inability to pay fines, and uncertainty with respect to the jurisdiction of customary leaders. As a follow up to the meeting, the acting caretaker governor organized a two-day rule of law conference on prison overcrowding involving over 300 participants from customary leaders, government ministers, and rule of law actors. On 7 October 2015, the Deputy Governor assessed the conditions at Aweil Central Prison, following which a further 72 inmates were released from the prison. Of those released, 59 had their fines or civil debt paid by a member of the community who was motivated to help reduce overcrowding and 13 juveniles who were about to complete their sentence and demonstrated good behavior.
The rule of law forum in Northern Bahr el Ghazal will continue to address the problem of the overcrowding of prisons, and has planned further site visits to different prisons around the state. In addition, legal aid advocates, who are members of the forum, are also working with the judiciary to secure the release of juveniles who have served the majority of their sentence. As stated by Honourable Garang Mawien, chairperson to the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights at the State Legislative Assembly and co-chair of the rule of law forum, “We are very proud of the successes of the rule of law forum in Aweil, but there remains work to be done. We look forward to our ongoing work with rule of law actors in the state to ensure that conditions in the prisons continue to improve.”