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Senegal's Penitentiary System Tries to Improve Prison Conditions

  • Amanda Fortier

Senegal is trying to improve living conditions for prisoners. Some improvements have been made but much remains to be done.

It is lunchtime at the maximum-security Camp Penal in Dakar.

John Obe sits at the head of a metal-framed bed in his long purple boubou. He leans back against the malaria net that dangles behind him and breaks off bits of a baguette sandwich that he has been sharing with the Senegalese man sitting next to him. Obe is a Nigerian-born American. He has been at Camp Penal since 2007.

Obe says he was in Senegal on vacation when he was arrested in front of a nightclub for drug possession. He got seven years in prison.

Hanging down from the ceiling in the center of the room is a single fan. Some men are sitting on wooden crates playing cards. Others are reading from the Koran or watching music videos on the small television in the corner.

They are all detainees, older than 18, serving sentences that range from two years to life, for crimes as varied as extortion and grand theft, to murder and rape.

Outside in the courtyard, there is the scent of rice and fish. Men walk by hauling massive aluminum bowls on their shoulders - the midday meal at Camp Penal. It is one of three meals offered to the 843 people living in this colonial-era prison built for a maximum capacity of 800.

Human-rights groups have long charged West African prisons are overcrowded, that inmates are tortured and that they must endure malnutrition, sickness and poor sanitary conditions.

Huguette Lassort runs the aid group Ci-Biti/ Air Libre. He has been working for nearly 20 years to help improve the 37 prisons in Senegal that hold more than 35,000 people.

Lassort says the most important issues in Senegal's prison system are the respect for individuals: including their health, hygiene and nutrition.

Seydi Gassama, director of Amnesty International programs in Senegal, says some people in Senegal think prison is for punishment, but it is not. He says just going to prison is a punishment. But in the mind of a Senegalese you should not go into prison if it is a hotel, you should go to suffer. And as long as people think like this, he says, the government will never increase the budget for prisoners and administration.

In 1960, the Senegalese government spent less than 10 cents a day on each prisoner. Today, they spend more than 10 times that amount, but even at $1 per person, this sum is still among the lowest in the world.

Saliou Fall, the director at Camp Penal, says they are trying to improve prison conditions by providing meals, health care, and workshops to help reintegrate detainees into society.

There are four nurses and one psychologist onsite. There is a mosque, chapel, library and classroom where detainees can learn Arabic and French. There are also various workshops to teach skills ranging from woodworking and sewing, to welding and painting.

In his office, Fall takes out receipts to show last month's payments to nine detainees who are training as tailors. Together these men earned $254.

Fall says their biggest problem at the prison is keeping the detainees occupied on a daily basis. They cannot hold this number of people and leave them with nothing to do. But they only have a few workshops and only a small percentage of people can actually work.

Across from Camp Penal is the Maison d'Arret pour Femmes. It is a detention center for women who have already been tried or are still awaiting their day in court.

Agnece Ndiogoye, the director of the women's facility, says women have free training in hair styling and embroidery. Once they learn a skill like sewing, Ndiogogye says, their clothes can also be sold at local craft markets.

Gassama says it is a false argument to say that if prison conditions are improved more people will want to come. There are some exceptions, he says, but that does not reflect reality.

Gassama says they do not come back to prison because we give them free food to eat. They come back, he says, because the conditions that brought them here in the first place still exist in their family and community.

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