The prison abolition movement in America and Europe is deeply underway in 21st-century political discourse, finally making headway into national conversations in the West. Talks once dominated by criminal justice reformists are challenged by futuristic thinkers, artists, and organizers who genuinely believe that a better world is possible without the peculiar and oppressive institution. While the United States and the United Kingdom is filled with activists who understand that the penal system must be eradicated, there is one incredibly large location that must become a part of the movement to end prisons as well know it.
The conditions of prisons on the African continent are indeed horrifyingly bleak; overcrowding, sexual assault, dilapidated physical structures, and the warehousing poor people who cannot afford bail before trial. We can look to indigenous African for understanding how harm was rectified, as we continue to form a Black international, prison-abolitionist framework. The movement to end the prison system in America, for Black activists, is intricately linked with the Dark Continent; decolonization does not only mean the end of incarceration in America but also in our indigenous homelands in Africa.
“Penal incarceration was rare in pre-colonial Africa. The detention of criminals, prisoners of war, slaves and others did take place, but it was usually secondary to some other purpose and was not regarded as a specific form of punishment,” argues Steven Petè in A Brief History of Human Rights in the Prisons of Africa. “According to [James S] Reed, the main focus of penal systems in traditional society was to secure compensation for the victim, as opposed to punishment of the offender. He points out that compensation for some common injuries was probably fixed in certain communities and refers to Kikuyu law, which provided that ‘nine sheep or goats had to be paid for adultery or rape, and one hundred sheep or ten cows for homicide.’ The rate of compensation did not change with the wealth or age of the victim and was no affected by the intention or motive of the killer.”
Jeremy Sarkin’s research on indigenous African societies preceding European colonialism coincides with Petè’s findings. “Prior to undertaking any analysis of the current state of African prisons, it is essential to cast an eye toward the past and consider the development of penal institutions throughout the continent. For the prison is not an institution indigenous to Africa. Rather, like so many elements of African bureaucracy today, it is a holdover from colonial times, a European import designed to isolate and punish political opponents, exercise racial superiority, and administer capital and corporal punishment.” It also must be noted that the death penalty was also rare in African indigenous societies, only utilized if the offender was exceptionally dangerous and a threat to the well-being of the community.
The introduction of imprisonment as punishment by European colonial administrations deterred the sovereignty and community structures of various African indigenous groups. Viviane Selah-Hanna and Chris Affor, writers of Colonial Systems of Control, detail the prison system in Nigeria: “Chinua Achebe’s (1954) anti-colonial novel Things Fall Apart describes well the trauma incurred by political leaders of the community who faced incarceration by the colonial power. For the African psyche, it was simply unimaginable to utilize prisons as a form of punishment. West Africa’s [in addition to East Africa’s] measures for crime control tended to be restorative and retributive justice; collective punishment was also common. Where an individual defrauded another member of another clan, the offender’s entire clan may have had to pay restitution, as is still commonly practiced in Mali.” Similar to how the prison system continues to erode the social fabric of Black communities in the United States, prisons in Africa function similarly.
Similar to the age of mass incarceration of U.S. Afro-descendants, due to the repressive political policies enacted by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, as well as the imprisonment of Black political prisoners such as Angela Davis, Mumia Abu Jamal, and Assata Shakur, incarceration in Africa also functioned as a tool of colonial control. “Prisons in a modern sense were established earlier in southern Africa than in the rest of Africa. The punishment of imprisonment was imported into the Cape Colony at the beginning of the nineteenth century, at around the time of prison reform movements in Europe and the Americas.” The system of apartheid in South Africa was implemented with the creation of European-style penal systems, creating a racist structure meant to control indigenous Africans into the submission of white colonial authority. Imprisonment was used to enforce colonial laws concerning taxes, forced labor, and to sustain colonial administrations with cheap work, and as a result, prisons in Africa regularly faced overcrowding, which continues in the present day after the collapse of the colonial administration. Robben Island, a notorious prison where anti-apartheid activists were warehoused, most notably Nelson Mandela, was later shut down after international pressure by anti-prison advocates.
It is also imperative to detail how colonial systems in Africa enforce gendered and queer oppression, intensely similar to the conditions of Black women and Black queer people in American prisons. “During colonial times, sexual assault and gang rape were particularly prevalent because women were not given separate quarters from men in prison. In Senegal, African women were expected to cook for the entire population and sleep in the kitchen or on the porch in the fort or prison compound,” continue Saleh-Hanna and Affor. As queerness in Africa was criminalized under colonial authority, queer Africans are punished for their sexuality and sexual expression, with incarceration being indefinite for many. In the Gambia, queer Africans can be penalized for up to 14 years. The former British colonies Nigeria can lead to capital punishment and also 14 years of imprisonment, while Chad, Uganda, and Cameroon have similarly anti-queer prison sentences. While direct information on the treatment of queer Africans in prison remains scant, the speculation on how the LGBTQI community is treated in the aftermath of colonial presence is indeed troubling.
Prisons on the African continent saw an explosion of strikes led by incarcerated Africans, most notably in South Africa. “As a result of political agreements and also to relieve overcrowding, several amnesties were prolonged in South Africa, both for political and for nonpolitical prisoners. Many prisoners excluded from these releases engaged in protest actions, including hunger strikes,” the Human Rights Watch reported in 1994.” The inmates, incarcerated at Barberton prison, initiated the hunger strike in response to the expiration of the deadline to release political prisoners in 1991. Barberton experienced a more intense revolt later in August 1991, a startling similarity to the Attica Uprising in the upstate New York prison in August of 1971. “The expectations and tensions related to anticipated releases of common crime prisoners led to a violent protest in Barberton…prisoners burned their cells in order, as one of the protest’s participants explained to us in 1993, ‘to get attention.’ After the fire and protests were subdued, six prisoners were dead,” the report claimed. “The official version is that they died in the fire. But several prisoners interviewed by us who said they witnessed the events stated that the six were killed by the prison staff.” Such radical political actions against apartheid staff in South Africa serves as an additional model for U.S. resistance and is an impetus for solidarity with current movements against the prison system led by incarcerated Africans.
For Black organizers in the United States determinately abolitionist, it is imperative that we include Africa in our resistance. As the African prison system is a colonial extension of racist, gendered, and heteronormative brutality, our efforts to dismantle prisons must not stop at our borders. For Afro-descendants in the Americas and the Caribbean, the prison system in our homelands is but another facet of colonialism we must actively work to uproot.