Why you should care
Mass incarceration and overcrowded prisons are a challenge across the world.
Huddled on wooden benches, the patients awaiting their turn to see a doctor at Palestina Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2015 frequently saw two elderly men in orange safety vests briskly mopping the tile floor outside the labor ward. But the duo weren’t hospital employees working for a living; they were following court orders.
Basil Mramba, 77, former Tanzanian finance minister, and Daniel Yona, 76, the country’s former energy and minerals minister, were jailed for three years each in 2015 after being convicted of “abuse of office” — a polite phrase for corruption. But the High Court of Tanzania, after hearing an appeal, changed the sentence to six months of community service.
The two men weren’t being let off lightly. Stripped of the influence they once commanded and armed with brooms, the former ministers spent six hours daily cleaning the dilapidated health facility. Their punishment is part of a growing pattern across East Africa. As prison populations continue to rise, along with the cost of keeping inmates behind bars, East African nations are increasingly switching to noncustodial sentences to reform nonserious offenders.
It will make them regret their mistakes while serving the community.
Charles Nsanze, Tanzania prison department
In Kenya, which has the region’s best infrastructure for implementing community service orders, the number of offenders serving noncustodial sanctions exploded from 43,145 in 2004 to 366,617 in 2015, according to statistics from the country’s Department of Probation and Aftercare Services. The number of community service orders imposed by Tanzanian courts doubled from 748 in 2011 to 1,498 in 2015, according to official data. And in Uganda, 36,556 community service orders since 2001 have helped the government save approximately 9 billion Ugandan shillings ($3.7 million) and other institutions an estimated 2.1 billion Ugandan shillings ($860,000). Convicts aren’t complaining either.
“I don’t regret sweeping hospital floors,” says Mramba, who has completed his stint. “It’s better than being in prison. A jail is not a safe place for anyone.”
A key factor behind the shift toward noncustodial penalties is the challenge of prison overcrowding that the region faces: In Kenya, the occupancy rate is 201.7 percent — in other words, a prison on average houses twice as many inmates as the number it is meant to. The numbers are startlingly high elsewhere too: 115.7 percent in Tanzania and a whopping 312.3 percent in Uganda, according to 2016 data compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies.
The congestion is worsened by widespread pretrial detentions and short-term jail sentences for minor offenses, according to Penal Reform International, a global nonprofit that is tracking prison conditions. For instance, more than 6,000 people were jailed in Tanzania for six months or less in the past decade for offenses like loitering, reckless driving, using abusive language, selling illicit brew or gambling, according to official data. Analysts argue that such violations can be dealt with more effectively through suspended sentences. On a visit to Uyui Prison in western Tanzania in 2015, human rights activists were shocked to see inmates crammed inside poorly ventilated cells, forced at times to sleep while sitting.
By increasingly adopting alternative sentences that entail hours of unpaid public work, authorities across East Africa hope to ease congestion and fight the social stigma associated with time in jail for those convicted of minor offenses. “We are reviewing petty offenders on a rolling basis — those who qualify are expediently assigned to community service, while others are acquitted,” says Atiang Mitullah, Kenya’s national coordinator for community service.
Dawson Masese is among those whose sentence has been commuted. The 22-year-old street hawker was sentenced to two years in prison in November last year for reckless driving, but his sentence was commuted to 432 hours of community service. His punishment included laying slabs on a neatly trimmed garden in Kisii, in western Kenya. “I have learned to be a responsible citizen.” says Masese. “I will not again endanger other people’s lives.” Other forms of community service that Kenya is employing include an afforestation program, under which offenders are required to plant seedlings and help rebuild the country’s fast-depleting forest cover.
Authorities in Tanzania are also increasingly convinced about the benefits of noncustodial sentences. “This is better for the offenders than locking them up in prison,” says Charles Nsanze, assistant director in charge of probation and community service at Tanzania’s prisons department. “It will make them regret their mistakes while serving the community.” And in Uganda, officials routinely visit prisons to educate inmates about the benefits of community service and identify those who might be eligible. For jail authorities, the gains are also financial ones.
That doesn’t mean East Africa has identified a silver bullet to mass incarceration. Funding shortages, corruption and hostile community attitudes mean these nations face challenges in ensuring that the alternative punishment they offer is effective. “The idea of community sentence is good but has not been well-understood by society,” says Nasser Mwakambonja, a criminologist at Dar es Salaam’s police academy. “Most people want to see convicts locked in prison, no matter what crime they have committed.”
In Kenya, some probation officers have faced accusations of colluding with criminals and court officers to fake social inquiry reports – evaluations of a convict’s character, used by courts to determine the quantum of sentencing – in favor of people convicted of serious crimes. The government has denied those charges. But public perceptions of such corruption, some fear, may make magistrates hesitate in issuing community service punishments.
Still, despite those challenges and fears of a societal pushback, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda remain steadily on this new path. These are countries that, over the past few years, have emerged as hubs for tech innovations. Now, they may also be shining a light on the benefits of an alternative penal system that several more-developed nations have long ignored.
Sabinus Joroge contributed reporting from Kenya.