Madagascar’s prison shame

According to the report, most pre-trial detainees in Madagascar have been arrested for petty crimes. (Amnesty International)

According to the report, most pre-trial detainees in Madagascar have been arrested for petty crimes. (Amnesty International)

The concrete floor of a prison cell crawls with bodies as detainees labour to draw their limbs closer to their torsos. The little light illuminating this daily custom, an exercise in preventing unwanted contact, enters through two small windows with bars on them. 

This scene, captured on film at a Manakara prison, shows the conditions in which many of Madagascar’s prisoners are forced to live — even if they have never been convicted of a crime.


As of October last year, 55% of Madagascar’s total prison population — around 11 000 people — had yet to stand trial. The details of this island’s peculiar crisis are contained in a new Amnesty International report, titled ‘Punished for Being Poor’.

The report, which scrutinises the conditions at nine different prisons in Madagascar, seeks to reveal how “economically and otherwise disadvantaged people … are subjected to unjustified, excessive and lengthy pre-trial detentions”.

Amnesty International researchers spoke to Jean*, an inmate at another prison in Tsiafahy. The 49-year-old called the maximum security prison a “concentration camp”, describing conditions similar to Manakara, over 500km away. 

“In the big rooms, we sleep on the side, and everyone touches each other, it’s unbearable. Hundreds of us are together, Jean said. “We sleep only one to two hours per night, it’s really bad. In November and December it’s deadly. There’s no air.”

According to the report, 129 prisoners died in Madagascar’s prisons in 2017. Fifty-two of them had yet to stand trial.

Jean has spent over a year in the prison awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping and criminal association. Under Madagascar’s national laws, pre-trial detention can last for up to five and a half years for adults, and 33 months for children.

The report demonstrates just how common Jean’s situation is in Madagascar, where most pre-trial detainees (89%) are men.

In another video clip taken at the Manakara prison, Amnesty International’s Madagascar adviser Tamara Léger asks a group of about 200 men to raise their hands if they are still awaiting trial. Someone in the group shouts: “Everyone.” Almost all put up their hands.

Though men are are more directly affected by the conditions of detention, research shows that women and children are disproportionately affected by some of its consequences.

At Antsirabe prison, in the central highlands of Madagascar, nearly a quarter of the 31 women pre-trial detainees had their babies with them or were pregnant. When researchers met Ava* she had been detained at Antsirabe for four months. She was living in the prison with her infant child with another baby on its way.

“I need to go home. The fact that I have a baby, and that I’m about to give birth soon is a big problem. I don’t have enough air [here], and the food isn’t like outside,” she said.

But Ava says she was only arrested because police could not find her husband. “I told the judge I don’t know anything about the case, and that I should not be involved. But he didn’t say anything, apart from that I will be in pre-trial detention.”

The report notes that the medical facilities available to pregnant inmates are either “grossly inadequate” or inaccessible. Researchers say they heard numerous reports of pregnant women having to walk to hospital, often kilometres away, to give birth.

Twelve prisons in Madagascar hold children in pre-trial detention, according to government information obtained by Amnesty. The youngest child at Manakara, who said he was 12 years old, was being held for stealing a chicken and had already spent one month behind bars.

According to the report, most pre-trial detainees in Madagascar have been arrested for petty crimes. Most of those interviewed were too poor to pay for a lawyer. Some did not even know what a lawyer does

Amnesty International suggests that the crisis of pre-trial detainment in Madagascar is a reflection of a nation — which has faced a series of political upheavals since its independence from France in 1960 — struggling to find stability.

Léger paints a picture of a criminal justice system that has been left broken.

“The severe lack of resources, the lack of training of staff, the poor co-ordination among the judiciary and the prison institutions, the slow pace of police investigations, and the delayed judicial disposal of cases has meant that thousands of people continue to remain detained,” Léger told the Mail & Guardian, adding that the government has failed to prioritise the justice system.

She said, in light of this failure, magistrates have adopted a punitive approach so as to be seen as “doing justice”.

After the report was officially released, Madagascar’s Acting President Rivo Rakotovao called its revelations “unacceptable”. Rakotovao told AFP that the country’s prisons have “already passed the limit in terms of capacity and quality”.

“No one has thought about investing in detention since independence,” he said.

Léger admitted that improving the justice system in Madagascar would take time. “Change does not happen overnight,” she said. But she insists that there are steps which the government can and should take immediately.

“Amnesty International is calling on the Malagasy authorities to release pre-trial detainees whose detentions have been unjustified, arbitrary or prolonged — starting with those being held for petty offences, or simply because they are poor,” Léger said.

*Not their real names
Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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