DAKAR, SENEGAL - Overcrowded prisons, poor conditions for the inmates and long pre-trial detention periods are issues throughout West Africa. In Senegal, the issue has led to prisoner protests and calls for reform.
An insurrection by 600 inmates at Dakar's Rebeuss prison in September left one prisoner dead and 40 others wounded. The prison has seen five hunger strikes in the past year, according to the director of the prison administration, Colonel Daouda Diop.
The prison, the largest in the capital, has a capacity of 800 but houses about 2,500 prisoners, according to the independent National Prisons Observatory. Former detainees told VOA they were packed in like sardines and got sick from being fed substandard food, like rice with pebbles and other debris in it.
Babacar Gueye, 20, was released after this most recent prisoner mutiny. He served two months for smoking marijuana on the street.
Gueye said the cells are so overcrowded that the prisoners had to take turns sleeping. He said he shared a cell with 350 prisoners who had access to just two showers and one toilet. And he said there were prisoners in Rebeuss who had been there up to 10 years without sentencing.
Of the 36,000 people incarcerated in Senegal, about half of them are pre-trial detainees, according to 2015 statistics.
Babacar Cissokho was arrested for selling marijuana and spent five years and six months in Dakar's Rebeuss prison. When his trial finally happened, he was sentenced to two years and was released.
"So I lost 3½ years of my life," he said. "I did long detention and I was released just like that, without any compensation."
It's a common story, said Alioune Tine, West Africa director for Amnesty International.
Tine said people can stay in prison in Senegal for years without judgment and are then freed without compensation. Generally speaking, he said, these are the poorest people who can't afford lawyers.
Not enough judges
Pre-trial detention, according to Senegalese law, should not exceed six months, but Assane Dioma Ndiaye, a criminal lawyer and president of the National Organization for Human Rights, told VOA there are not enough investigating judges.
Ndiaye also noted that an anti-drug law passed in 2007, which criminalized possession and dealing of drugs like marijuana, had significantly contributed to the overpopulation of the prisons.
Ndiaye and others said long pre-trial detention leads to higher rates of recidivism. Inmates lose their means to earn a living and have a hard time reintegrating into society, they said.
Recent presidential pardons for high-profile prisoners like several influential businessmen, a singer and the ex-president's son, Karim Wade, who was convicted on corruption charges last year, have only heightened anger.
A member of a civic action group in Guediawaye, one of Dakar's poorest suburbs, runs a center that teaches ex-convicts hip-hop music, French and filmmaking to help them get back on their feet.
Fadel Barro is a leader of the group, the "Y'en a Marre" movement, which translates as "We're Fed Up." He said members see that justice is still on the side of those with power and that celebrities have access to early release, while the sons of farmers and ordinary working-class people don't get the same treatment.
President Macky Sall has pardoned just over 7,000 inmates since he took office in 2012. It is an annual tradition in Senegal. But by law, pre-trial detainees are not eligible.
Four days after the riot in Rebeuss, Justice Minister Sidiki Kaba said prisons need to be modernized, and he pledged to increase the budget for food rations.
He said a new prison for 1,500 detainees would be built and the construction of a prison for 500 had begun. "We will install permanent sessions within the permanent criminal chambers with the hope of shortening pre-trial detentions," Kaba said.
Activists told VOA promises like that have been made before, but the violence during the most recent insurrection might lead to action this time.
In October, the government opened a bakery in Dakar to produce bread for eight prisons. Construction of one of the two new prisons is expected to be finished in January.