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Rights Groups Decry Decrepit Conditions in Cameroon Prisons

FILE - Prisoners line up inside Douala central prison in Cameroon.
FILE - Prisoners line up inside Douala central prison in Cameroon.

Human rights groups are calling on Cameroon to improve the conditions at its poor and chronically overcrowded prisons. Rights advocates say inadequate sanitation, food, water, as well as torture are rife in the prisons.

Penda Emmanuel, 26, jailed in Cameroon's Yoko prison for four years, says he was handed a seven-year sentence for aggravated theft and attempted murder. Emmanuel said he was detained in a Yaounde prison for two years before being transferred to Yoko.

"No, it is not good because in Yoko, first of all, there is no food. People are living, but with hunting [a select group are prisoners who are at the end of their sentences go hunting with prison guards for food, then share with fellow prison mates], all those type of things," he said. "That means if you are in the prison of Yoko you will suffer too much."

Pem Clement, who has also been serving a life sentence for murder, says lack of food and drinkable water, torture, and inhumane treatment provoked a prison break less than 10 years ago, when he was brought to Yoko prison.

Clement says the government called for troops from the capital, Yaounde, before a reign of terror and massacres was reduced. He says people were asked not to go out after 6:00 pm and helicopters flew above to shoot at prisoners who were hiding in the bushes and had been raping women. Many of them were killed he says, adding that he does not know how many could have escaped.

Beyond maximum capacity

Cameroon's 78 prisons are built for a maximum capacity of 16,000 inmates. They now host 30,000 people with a majority of them still awaiting trial. Some of the prisons, like the Kondengui prison in Yaounde, were constructed to hold only 500 inmates. Today it holds more than 2,000 inmates.

Che Mutta Divine, chairperson of Cameroon's National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms, says her group is calling on the government to respect the rights of the prisoners by meeting their basic needs and giving them access to a fair trial.

"You can not be denying what is commonly known and where evidence is available," she said. "Rather, accept that violations are going [on], find the root causes and see how you can eradicate [them] to see that that is not happening again."

Yoko prison registrar Mepui David says there have been efforts to improve conditions at the facility. He says the prison population has fallen from 3,000 inmates two years ago to less than 100 today.

According to David the government has done a lot to improve living conditions in his prison, but they still face an acute water shortage.

He refutes allegations that his prison has swelled from the arrest and detention of suspected Boko Haram terrorists who have been attacking northern Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad in an effort to create an Islamist state.

Amnesty International reported in September 2015 that prisons in Cameroon were receiving a large number of Boko Haram suspects.

It said the Maroua prison near Cameroon's border with Nigeria, which was constructed to hold less than 500 inmates, was nearly half filled with Boko Haram suspects. The report also found that 1,300 prisoners were housed without proper hygiene and health care.

Cameroon has denied the accusations.