Southern Sudan expects to become Africa’s newest nation after the results of this month’s independence referendum are officially released February 7. Building the new nation will not be easy. Years of neglect and civil war virtually destroyed the region's infrastructure and social services, including its prison system.
It is morning inspection at Juba Prison, the largest of southern Sudan’s 10 prisons. About 900 men, women and children are incarcerated in a facility built to hold 600.
Director of Prisons Lieutenant General Abel Makoi Wol is trying to rebuild and reform a penal system that virtually collapsed during the decades of conflict with the government in Khartoum.
"Nothing was existing because most of the prisons fell [collapsed] during the war," said Wol. "And people started renovating the old ones which were actually built in the colonial era. And they did not have any structures available."
Wol says many prisoners have yet to be tried. Others have served their sentences, but have not been released. This is because of inefficient courts, prosecutors and police, another legacy of the war.
More than 10 juveniles are also jailed here because there are no special facilities for underage offenders. Officials are building a separate facility for them on the grounds.
Women do have separate facilities at Juba Prison, but at the other prisons they are incarcerated with the men.
A dozen children live with their mothers in the prison. When they reach two years of age they are supposed to leave and receive foster care outside. Many are much older. They stay on because there is no foster-care system.
Southern Sudan has no facilities for the mentally ill. As a result, dangerous individuals are sent to the prisons. The Public Health Ministry should be caring for them, but staff, funds and drugs are lacking.
Prison officials, with the United Nations and other donors, are trying to rehabilitate the facilities.
They are building a new kitchen and want to build a workshop so prisoners can learn a trade.
They also want to start a farm so the prisoners can learn to contribute to their communities after they are released. But security concerns have prevented the launch of such projects.
A football game in the main courtyard provides exercise to some of the younger prisoners. Others pass the time washing clothes or tending to small plots of potted vegetables.
Prisoners convicted of capital crimes are shackled with chains around their ankles.
Many sit on the ground playing board games or staring into space.
Wol says good facilities are essential for an effective prison system. He also wants more trained corrections officers to upgrade his staff of mostly former soldiers.
"You have to have the institutions. Then should you provide the capacity, the rest will come automatically," he said. "Once you have the strong officers, once you have the strong laws, once you have the strong base, then you will overcome the rest of the thing [obstacles]."
The southern Sudanese government is building an academy outside Juba to train law enforcement officers. But Wol notes that in a society with a literacy rate of less than 20 percent, every sector is competing for personnel with even basic skills.
Wol and his officers hope independence will attract more investment and expertise. They will be needed if they are to build the institutions of the emerging nation and satisfy the aspirations of its long-suffering people.