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Cameroon Prisoners Blame Overcrowding, Poor Hygiene for COVID Spread

FILE - Prisoners are seen inside a truck before being transported from Kondengui Central Prison, in Yaounde, Cameroon, July 23, 2019. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)

Prisoners in Cameroon’s overcrowded prisons are protesting what they say is neglect in prison centers, leading to a rapid spread of the coronavirus. Over the past month, protests were reported in several locations, including the Kondengui Maximum Security Prison in the capital, Yaounde, the New Bell prison in the coastal city of Douala, and the central prison in the English-speaking western town of Bamenda, according to authorities.

A Kondengui prison inmate told VOA that prisoners have been holding ‘prayer protests’ for 30 minutes every day for the past two weeks. During these protests, prisoners say they have been crying out for help, pleading for protection against the spread of the virus. The prisoner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, was able to speak to VOA via the WhatsApp messaging platform.

“The COVID-19 is ravaging our country. We need to be able to have proper hygiene. At times they cut water for two to three days. To wash hands is very very difficult. Government should come and look for solutions so that together we can help to fight this COVID-19 and ensure that we have proper hygiene,” the prisoner said.

The prisoner said sanitation at the facility is poor and it is overcrowded. About 4,500 inmates are being held there, he said, even though it was built to hold fewer than 1,500 prisoners. Lack of sanitation and face masks add to the difficulties prisoners face in conditions where access to health workers is limited.

Authorities say the country has about 30,000 inmates in 78 detention facilities built to accommodate a maximum of 9,000. The government says close to 700 of the 16,250 inmates tested within the past three months in 21 prisons were COVID-positive. Fewer than 300 tested COVID-positive last year.

FILE - Prisoners are seen being moved into a truck for transport, at Kondengui Central Prison, in Yaounde, Cameroon, July 23, 2019. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)
FILE - Prisoners are seen being moved into a truck for transport, at Kondengui Central Prison, in Yaounde, Cameroon, July 23, 2019. (Moki Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)

Justice Minister Laurent Esso said there was a spike in COVID cases among inmates, but he rejects prisoners’ claims that inmates get very little assistance, saying the claims are unfounded.

He said a few inmates whose health conditions were already critical died while being rushed to hospital. There is lack of awareness among inmates about the virus and many inmates don’t come forward once they do test positive, he said.

Additionally, following precautions to keep a 1.5-meter distance from one another is difficult, due to the overcrowding of these centers, Esso admitted. However, he added that inmates are required to wash their hands regularly and face mask requirement are enforced. Also, the government has reduced the number of visitors and suspended all social gatherings and activities at prison yards to limit the spread of COVID, he said.

Esso said all inmates will be tested for COVID, and those infected with the virus will get free treatment. He said the government will administer anti-COVID vaccines to prisoners who will accept vaccinations.

Fabrice Vavemi Lena, coordinator of the nongovernmental group Prison Watch Cameroon, which works to improve living and health conditions for inmates, said that to reduce the spread of COVID among inmates, the government should release pretrial detainees who have been held for long periods with no evidence of wrongdoing.

“The prisons are overcrowded. This is largely due to the number of persons that were from the Anglophone crisis (conflict in southern Cameroon’s regions), some whose cases have not been opened at the military tribunal and some who have already been condemned. With the new variant of the COVID-19, the government had to take measures because the procedures of law are very cumbersome. If the spread continues at the magnitude in which it is, it might also affect the prison guards,” he said.

Lena said the government could also grant freedom to prisoners, incarcerated for misdemeanors, if they have served half of their sentences.

Esso said he had given instructions to judges to speed the trial of suspects in tribunals all over Cameroon.

In April 2020, President Paul Biya announced that thousands of the country’s prisoners would be released in an effort to lessen prison crowding and to prevent the spread of COVID.

Inmates have been among the groups with the highest level of exposure, according to the government.