They describe detention facilities rife with overcrowding, violence, disease, extended pre-trial detention and torture. And instead of conditions improving, things are only deteriorating, according to Madeleine Afite of the Christian Action Against Torture (ACAT), a local nongovernmental organisation that works to improve prison conditions in the country.
“In the section where I was there were 50 of us to sleep in an area of five metres squared,” a former detainee, who gave his name as Lambert, told IRIN. “There was one tap for 1,200 people. Fed up, some prisoners refused to bathe and contracted scabies.”
The central prison in the capital, Yaounde, houses 4,000 inmates although it was built to hold 2,000, rights groups say. ACAT said a survey of 69 detention centres in the country showed there were few beds and prisoners ate a mixture of maize and beans. Otherwise, family members or religious organisations brought food to inmates. In some prisons, minors are detained with adults, ACAT said.
Afite noted that much of the problem with overcrowding stems from prolonged pre-trial detention. Rights advocates say some people languor for years behind bars waiting for a day in court that might not even yield a fair verdict because the country’s judicial system is hampered by corruption.
Overcrowding is supposed to be eased following the passage of a new penal code in January that limits the terms of provisional detention to a maximum of six months, renewable for another 6-12 months.
So far there has been little change, in part because of the huge judiciary backlog. An estimated 70 percent of inmates in Cameroonian detention facilities are awaiting trial, according to ACAT.
“There were proposals for prison reforms in 2004-2005 but there is no solution from the state on the situation of Cameroonian prisons,” Afite said. “Investigations have been conducted but have not yielded any results.”
Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, agreed to multi-party democracy and all that it entailed, including respect for human rights and improved civil liberties, when he bowed to the continent’s democracy movement in the early 1990s.
But critics of his rule say neither respect for civil rights nor basic freedoms have improved. They note that security forces act with impunity, including in the country’s prisons, where human rights groups say torture is a commonplace.
The US State Department in its human rights report on Cameroon for 2006 pointed out alleged abuses in New Bell Prison in the city of Douala. The report said one common form of abuse included hanging prisoners from a rod and then beating them on the soles of their feet and genitals.
In addition, violence among inmates is rife.“At night prisoners are piled up and cannot sleep,” one of the guards told IRIN. During the day, he said, tensions mount. “It doesn’t take a second of violence for one to be killed.”
ACAT said a lack of prison guards made it difficult to curb the violence. For example, it said, there are only 14 guards for the 4,000 detainees in the Yaounde prison. A third of the guards were suspended after a general strike in January.
Emmanuel Ngafesson, secretary of state in charge of maximum-security prisons, agreed that there were problems with overcrowding in the country’s detention centres and a lack of guards. He said the new penal code would help rectify the problem.
“Minor offences that used to result in incarceration, such as vagrancy or failure to present identification documents, will no longer be considered the same thing today,” he said.