In Ghana, a project aims to transform prisons into productive farms. It'll give inmates the inputs needed to start and sustain their own food production enterprises. They'll cultivate state land that's presently lying fallow, and farming experts will teach them skills to use when they're released from jail. The initiative could enable convicts to feed themselves as well as others in West Africa, and its success will ensure that Ghanaian prisons are no longer mere places of punishment.
Moses Kanduri's vision is clear, and lofty.
"We want to turn prisons into agricultural ventures, to stop hunger in the region, to help the inhabitants fight high food prices," says the administrator of the West African Development Objective. The organization's based in Accra, the capital of Ghana, but also has offices in Benin and Nigeria.
"We promote sustainable agriculture, and want to link up countries in West Africa to achieve our goals. We also connect local groups with international organizations with the aim of learning more about improving agricultural practices in Africa," Kanduri explains.
He notes that the rationale behind his brainwave is "simple but ambitious." According to Kanduri's research, Ghana's government spends about US$ 80 million every financial year to feed 47,000 prisoners.
"Our view is that this money could be better used elsewhere – for poverty relief, for example – and that the prisoners should be given the means and the training that will eventually enable them to largely feed themselves."
Kanduri plans the first of two pilot projects at a prison near the town of Nsawam in eastern Ghana, about 40 kilometers from Accra.
"Nsawam is known as the breadbasket of Ghana. Women here bake a lot of bread, and then they sell it all day to people passing through the town in buses and cars on the way to Accra," he tells VOA.
Kanduri says his second initial project is to be located at a jail near the southwestern town of Kenyasi, in Ghana's Brong Ahafo region.
"This is a gold mining area, with a lot of fertile land that has yet to be used. The Ghana prison service owns a lot of the land there, and they have big prisons there."
Farming no longer punishment
Kanduri acknowledges that prisons are usually places where people who've committed crimes "are supposed to be "rehabilitated."
But in Ghana, he says, "little emphasis" is placed on this. "Prisons are places of hard labor, where those incarcerated are punished with tilling the land, for example, and other harsh treatment. The way prisons in Ghana presently operate, I believe, means they are not places that ultimately deter criminals from crime. The whole prison experience simply hardens them because of hard labor," Kanduri emphasizes.
"We want to change this system that hardly benefits anyone by giving the prisoners a financial interest in making sure their small farms are successful food producers," he attests.
Kanduri says he's spoken to "many, many prisoners" as part of research ahead of the project, and most are overwhelmingly in favor of it. He recalls one specific conversation with a man who was a multiple offender, having returned to prison for various crimes most of his life.
"When I asked him why he'd been in and out of prison, what led to him to committing more crimes after he'd been in jail, he told me that prison taught him nothing, that it gave him no skills that he could use when he was free. In fact," says Kanduri, "all it did was provide a place where he could meet up with fellow prisoners, where they'd pass the time by plotting new crimes. So when he was released, he went out to implement the criminal plans. That's all he knew how to survive."
Kanduri says his project will begin by selecting 200 "enthusiastic" convicts at both prisons, and "getting them each access to an acre of state land." Following this, a team of agricultural consultants will train the chosen prisoners.
"This training is going to include some kind of guidance and counseling that will set their minds straight that the farming they will do is not a kind of punishment but it's kind of rehabilitating them and giving them skills that will be helpful when they come out of prison," he says.
Convicts will profit and grow for poor
Kanduri maintains that he'll make sure the criminals "understand they're going to be owners of the project…. Simply put, the prisoners will be shareholders in the business ventures that come about as a result of the project."
The development worker stresses that this is the "only way" to guarantee his initiative's success.
"When somebody is owning a project that he's going to benefit from, he's going to put all his efforts into it!" he exclaims.
Kanduri has planned for the prisoners to begin with maize production, "because about 80 percent of Ghanaian food is made from maize…. But there are plans to get them to raise chickens, for eggs and poultry, soya beans and millet. We're going to be targeting goods that have ready markets in West Africa."
He predicts that at the end of the first season, the participants will cultivate about 3,000 bags of maize and says half of the yield will "immediately" be given to the Ghanaian prison service.
"Thirty percent of it is going to go into direct feeding (of the prisoners) while 20 percent is going to go into paying the allowances of the prisoners that are working on these farms. Now the prisoners who are going to be working on these farms will have accounts that we are going to open (for) them, in collaboration with (Ghana's) agri-development bank," Kanduri explains.
He emphasizes that the prisoners will only be able to access monies when they're freed. "In this way, when they are released, they won't just simply enter a life of poverty, which usually happens, but will have a fund on which they can rely temporarily."
Even prisoners who are serving life sentences and who decide to be part of his project will benefit from his plan, Kanduri tells VOA. "Their families – like spouses, children, mothers and fathers – will be the direct beneficiaries of his share. They will be joint signatories with the prisoner on the account."
He says the remaining maize from the initial harvest will be "part of a business venture and will be sold to the general public, with the profit being ploughed back into the project to keep it going."
"Prisoners are also human beings"
Kanduri acknowledges that "some people" may have "problems" with his efforts that appear aimed chiefly at helping prisoners – some of whom have committed terrible crimes that are anathema to law-abiding societies.
"I realize there may be some people who will tell me that there are better and more needy and deserving people for me to be helping," he says. But he requests such skeptics to "bear something in mind - this is not going to be an easy ride for the prisoners. They will be doing this project as their hard labor. They will be sweating under the sun," Kanduri stresses, and then adds, "Yes, it's true they'll be learning skills and building their capacity to survive once they're released, but I believe the advantages of this project are too great to ignore. And one of those great advantages is that these otherwise unproductive people will be growing cheaper food in a very poor area."
Kanduri's convinced that prisoners everywhere shouldn't just "slave away" and be "outcasts." He wants "some public good" to emerge from the convicts' incarceration and his project, and he's certain this will happen in the forms of extra food for surrounding communities and prisoner rehabilitation.
He says, "A prisoner may have done some bad things, but he or she is also a human being. Convicts also deserve a second chance at building a good, law-abiding life for themselves. They should not just be locked away and forgotten; they must be given the chance to make something better of their lives and be encouraged not to commit further crimes."
Agriculturalists working as cashiers
Kanduri insists, too, that projects such as his that boost food production are essential to a region where he says the authorities are doing little to support agriculture.
"(There's) little funding available to develop farming in West Africa. Students are also not encouraged to study agriculture, with the result that there are fewer and fewer skilled farmers and agriculturalists in the region. But, even if they do study agriculture, you'll find that they can't get work in their field of expertise," he explains. "These are people who should be producing food in a part of the world in serious need of as much food as it can get, but they aren't. It's tragic."
Kanduri says he's aware of many West Africans who have "top qualifications" in agriculture but who aren't involved in any way with food production.
"…. After getting their degree they'll be working in the bank as cashiers, as (administrative clerks) and all those kinds of things," he says.
Kanduri notes that West African agriculture is plagued with further problems.
"Farmers receive no subsidies from the government. They are told that they need capital and grants before they can begin farming on a larger scale. So that makes them stay subsistence farmers without ever growing bigger. Government policies here totally ignore the possibility of subsidies for local farmers."
But right now, Kanduri's mind is on Ghana's prisoners. To allow them to be farmers while serving their sentences is just the first step in what is a broad and difficult mission.