Prison conditions in Africa are generally poor. In most cases, infrastructure inherited from the colonial era is dilapidated. Governments complain of limited resources to construct new detention centers for ever-increasing numbers of inmates. In Cameroon, several failed jailbreak attempts in recent months have highlighted detention conditions. Activists say calamity is looming if the authorities there fail to act fast. From Cameroon's economic capital, Douala, Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Ntaryike Divine, Jr., says Cameroon has over 70 prisons housing some 24,000 inmates. Of those in prison, well over half are pre-trial detainees, according to official government statistics.
Human rights observers say detention conditions are poor with chronic overcrowding, inadequate feeding, violence, sexual abuse, torture, poor sanitation and rampant corruption. The government announced reforms three years ago, but says lack of resources has contributed to snail-paced reforms.
The Newbell Central Prison in
Cameroon's economic hub Douala symbolizes the incarceration conditions
nationwide. It was constructed in 1935 for a prisoner population of 800
inmates, but today counts more than 3,500.
Ze Messomo Moise is a former inmate. He was released two years ago after spending five years behind bars at Newbell. He says his prison experience led him to drop his previous job as a school teacher, and he now works for a local non-governmental organization, the Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, ACAT.
He says "I have been a victim and I would even say that prisoners in Cameroon are very tolerant. The prison is not meant to torture, dehumanize or kill people. But the food, the health situation and the environment at Newbell are not fit for human beings. How can you explain the fact that someone accepts to die from a bullet than persevere in prison despite the poor conditions?"
And that's not all. He says inmates sleep under open skies and sometimes in the rain for lack of space. He says the penitentiary usually lacks running water and electricity, while sexual abuse, especially of minors by adult inmates is rampant. Ze Messomo says drug addiction and disease are high at Newbell where minors are lodged with hardened criminals in the same cells. He says the decrepit nature of the prison facilitates the circulation of guns, knives and other dangerous weapons.
A combination of these threats to inmates' lives often encourages jailbreaks. More than 30 inmates have died trying to jump jail in the past two months. Last June, 17 fugitive inmates were plucked by guard's bullets from the prison's three-meter-high electrified walls and roofs. In late August, inmates set ablaze part of the prison in attempts to create disorder and stage another breakout. Medics say 16 have so far died from burns and suffocation.
Bernard Fonju is a barrister and former legal assistant with the Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He says the sluggish nature of Cameroon's judicial system partly accounts for congestion, harsh conditions and repeated attempts at jailbreaks:
"Detention is too long. People stay in prison for too long before they're even heard; before they're even called up for the first time to ask whether they're pleading guilty or not guilty. By the time they come to court with the various adjournments, you find somebody spending three years in prison awaiting trial. We don't have enough magistrates. For example in Douala, you find a magistrate with 200 files. How can that be? We have just one court hall for criminal matters and accused persons are judged only on Wednesdays and Fridays. You can imagine. People who may tomorrow be released because they're not found guilty die awaiting trial. "
And the prison has only 150 guards, who are poorly trained, ill-equipped and said to be unmotivated. The registrar, Joseph Tsala Amougou, who declined talking to us on the record, says at least 700 are needed. In January 2007, many of them were arrested and thrown in jail for engaging in a general strike to protest dismal working conditions. 75 are still undergoing trial.
Guards are not strict about
inspecting cells. But they rarely miss shooting fleeing inmates. Amnesty International
has called on Cameroon's government to check the rising shoot-to-kill policy in
the country's prisons. It has warned that until conditions are improved, more
jailbreaks and the disproportionate use of force by the guards and security
officers will continue.
Ze Messomo says some of the people shot and killed during breakout attempts are innocent individuals unable to bear incarceration conditions.
"Take the case of last June. I know all those who were killed trying to escape. Many were innocent. The question is -- do we train prison guards to kill inmates when they try to escape? Their work is to prevent jailbreaks. As human beings, have we got to assassinate 17 people in such a manner? I say it's unacceptable and an inquiry must be carried out to determine under what circumstances these children were killed."
In the meantime, the government has announced plans to construct a new prison on the outskirts of Douala by 2010. It's intended to hold 2000 inmates. But critics say that first the government should decongest the country's prisons by reducing time spent in pre-trial detention and by releasing minor offenders. Some inmates are awaiting trial in jail just because they lacked identification papers at the time of arrest.