‘The sun’s rays have become strangers to our eyes’

To get a sense of the problems besetting prisons in Côte d’Ivoire, look no further than Building C of the House of Arrest and Correction of Abidjan (Maca).

The 115 detainees crowded together in this building share just one toilet, and barely manage a daily shower. Maca, the largest prison in southern Côte d’Ivoire, is home to more than 4 000 prisoners — even though the 26-year-old facility was built for just half that number, says director Toha Ouattara.

Two or three residents of Building C can be seen sharing an ear of boiled maize or a braised yam, bought for about 24 United States cents (about R1,70). This is the amount of money allocated to buy daily rations for detainees in Ivorian prisons, says one of the guards at Maca.

”Those who are lucky are visited by relatives or friends who bring them good meals every day,” the guard says. However, certain prisoners claim that some of this extra food, such as meat and fish, is often confiscated by guards, who take it for themselves.

One of the detainees, Abou Sanogo, has already served five years at Maca for voluntary homicide. Walking in the prison courtyard, he struggles to lift his head. ”There is no light in the cell. Sometimes we go for three months without leaving, and when the occasion [to walk] presents itself, the sun’s rays have become strangers to our eyes,” he says.

The poor condition of prisons in Côte d’Ivoire has come under fire from several quarters.

Love in Action (Amour en Action), an NGO headquartered in the financial capital of Abidjan, has issued a reminder that detainees have rights that must be respected; but, numerous complaints to authorities about the state of jails have elicited no results, the group noted.

UN report

Paris-based NGO Médecins sans Frontières has also described prison conditions as inhumane, as has the United Nations mission in Côte d’Ivoire (Unoci), in a report published last month.

Between June 2004 and July 2006, 475 deaths were noted in prisons, with Maca having the highest death toll (64), indicated the Unoci study.

Most of the deaths resulted from malnutrition, although some appeared suspicious. Cases of degrading treatment were common, said the report; this could take the form of chaining the feet of two to three detainees together.

UN forces help patrol a buffer zone between the rebel-held north of the country and the government-controlled south. Côte d’Ivoire was divided in two four years ago, when soldiers took up arms to fight against the alleged exclusion of people living in the north.

Of the 11 prisons that were operating in this area before the rebellion, 10 are still functioning, according to Unoci. However, the conflict has taken a significant toll on the facilities, including Bouaké penal camp — the largest prison in the country, which catered for long-term prisoners and Ivorian gang leaders.

Bouaké, in the centre of Côte d’Ivoire, is also the headquarters of the rebels — known as the New Forces.

”In the absence of any judicial system, the prisoners are judged by those with authority in the New Forces. They can be detained as long as these persons [the rebels] want,” said Françoise Simard, one of the authors of the Unoci report, which identified 295 detainees in northern and western jails.

The rebels are also said to have freed prisoners after starting their campaign against the government, to serve as combatants.

Matters are scarcely better in the 22 jails in government-held areas, where over-crowding is rife: meant to house 3 371 prisoners, they currently house almost 9 300 detainees, notes Ouattara.

Awaiting trial

According to justice ministry estimates, about 30% of detainees (almost 3 000 prisoners) are still awaiting trial.

A large number of these detainees should not even be in jail, says John Rose, of the Unoci unit of judicial and prison affairs. However, ”the slow pace of judicial procedures [and] lack of sessions of the Courts of Assize [criminal courts] for several years” stand in the way of their release.

Unoci notes that funding for prisons decreased slightly last year, despite the substantial needs of jails.

”It [the prisons budget] must be increased as soon as possible for improving the conditions of detention of prisoners, and also working conditions for prison staff — without which there is a risk of collapse of the judicial system,” warned Simard.

The situation is not completely without hope. The ministry of justice says it is giving thought to increasing the daily rations of prisoners, and has undertaken repairs to certain jails.

A computer system to assist with management of detainees is also being gradually installed, under the auspices of a project to fight against abusive detention initiated by Paris-based NGO Prisonniers sans Frontières. The project is supported by the European Development Fund.

But, enormous challenges remain, as the situation of a guard interviewed by Inter Press Service in Maca’s Building B attests.

Dressed in a dirty combat uniform and worn-out shoes, carrying an old submachine gun, the guard was found dozing. ”There are not enough of us to have shifts,” he notes, adding that the prison is not secure. ”We always have problems preventing prisoners escaping.”

While prisons require a staff complement of about 1 370 people, they currently have just 700 officers, according to the Unoci report. About 3 660 prisoners escaped between June 2005 and April 2006, noted the document. — IPS

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