Squalid conditions, poor food and overcrowding in Ghana's prisons amount to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," a UN special representative has said.

The comments by Juan Mendez - UN special rapporteur on torture - on Thursday came in the wake of a Human Rights Watch report released last year that criticised mental health care in Ghana for its reliance on forced confinement in harsh conditions.

During his six-day trip, Mendez visited prisons, mental hospitals and "prayer camps" around the West African country of 25 million.

"The overcrowding in some of the places that we visited is particularly severe," said Mendez, an Argentinian human rights lawyer who himself was subjected to torture in his own country during the 1970s.

"If there is inadequate food, if there is inadequate medical treatment, if there are unsanitary conditions, those are by definition cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" and in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, which Ghana has ratified, he said.

According to government figures, Ghana's prisons are hugely overcrowded, but Mendez believes the number may be higher.

Mendez, known for his work on behalf of political prisoners, said he noticed a reliance by prison authorities on a system where inmates known as "black coats" were singled out to whip other alleged stubborn colleagues with canes.

"We were dismayed to see that they have canes ... we didn't actually see any discipline, but we did see them brandishing their canes and threatening any inmates."

'Prayer camps' criticised

Mendez also criticised the quality of mental health-care in Ghana, both at hospitals and in spiritual healing centres known as "prayer camps".

He said a psychiatric hospital in capital Accra did not have enough drugs to treat patients and was improperly using controversial electroconvulsive therapy.

"It is not used as a last resort, it is not clear that it is used with clear and informed consent of the patient, and it is used with insufficient anaesthetic," Mendez said.

At "prayer camps" located in rural areas of Ghana, he said people were shackled to trees or inside rooms, findings that aligned with last year's HRW report.

He plans to release a report in February outlining his findings in the country.

Although his report which will make recommendations that are non-binding, it could harm Ghana's international reputation.

Ghana is the world's second-largest producer of cocoa and Africa's second-largest producer of gold.

Source: AFP