Reports from prisoners about ill-treatment while in jail or guards who ‘beat up’ the inmates are very disturbing. Namibia, a country whose most esteemed heroes suffered torture in prison cannot possibly bathe in the hypocrisy of the mistreatment of its prisoners. Officials responsible for inspecting prisons and those providing services to prisoners must be questioned and the truth uncovered. Mistreatment in prisons cannot be Namibia’s legacy.

Our leaders that have passed on and those who are still with us know by personal experience what it means to be locked up, vulnerable to a jailor, and treated as if they were not human beings. It cannot be that prisons in the Land of the Brave have become the very hell that our leaders decried during the liberation struggle.

In times of economic strife and budget cuts, the ‘out of sight = out of mind’ principle is usually used to decide who suffers the deepest cuts. Government services that the ordinary Namibian does not follow have reduced resources to a greater degree than more visible ministries.

Prisons are in the out of sight category. Budgets were already at the backend of government priorities. Now, those have been cut even further. With the pandemic, pressure on the prisons has become worse. With an economic crisis in full bloom, crime goes up and prison populations increase. And yet, budgets to run prisons are reduced. Life on the inside of Namibia’s jails is an overcrowded, dirty, violent, terrorized hell. Why is this allowed?

All around the world and here in Namibia, people do not want to look at rehabilitation and incarceration. It is hard to look at crime and punishment and not feel squeamish. People have heard ‘something’ about the nightmare that goes on inside prisons and the threats to the well-being of convicts. But, we all shy away from thinking about it too deeply. We don’t want to look too closely.

Families with loved ones locked up carry a self-imposed burden of social shame. Many families who hear the nightmare tales from their loved ones suffering on the inside. But, they will not kick up a fuss at the mistreatment. They may even counsel their loved one to “keep your head down” or “do not make draw attention.” These families are ashamed to let their neighbours and co-workers know they have a convict in the immediate family.

Because of this, one large advocacy voice for prison reform (i.e., families) is effectively self-silenced. This lack of advocacy for their rights isolates the prisoners even more.

With no downside to or visibility for the violations of prisoners’ rights, the door is open for it. The few guards and people in the system inclined to mistreat the prisoners in their charge, have a green light to do so. No one is watching and sadly, no one really cares.

Studies have been done that guards in prisons often feel as locked up as the prisoners. Remember, when those gates are closed, the guards are also shut-in. Those in charge are not doing enough to keep prison guards stimulated, motivated, and incentivized to follow the codes of human decency towards the inmates. We might read about a sick prisoner begging for medical help, they see a con man trying to run a scam or trying to escape. Checks and balances are needed to find a middle ground.

There have been reports of criminal gangs inside the prison. There are confirmed cases of rape, drug use, beat downs and fights amongst the prisoners. The guards know this goes on and most feel powerless or disinclined to do anything about it. There are guards who are probably scared of some of the prisoners.

Inside a prison is a far different world than outside. It is a closed, locked-in society operating on Lord of the Flies rules where ‘might makes right’ and ‘only the strong survive.’ This is not new information.

Sadly, most people have little interest in the rehabilitation of criminals. Society cares more about punishment. Stories of inmates suffering often are met with a shrug of the shoulders by the public. They believe prison life should be horrible. And yet, there are laws and regulations to be followed regarding conditions in prisons. Namibia must follow those rules.

Let us remember our own history of inhumane treatment in prisons. Namibia must renew its commitment to the human rights of each inmate. Those in jail are human beings. If we deny their humanity, we deny our own.