Prison conditions remained harsh and life-threatening. Numerous international human rights organizations, including Journalistes en Afrique pour le Developpement, Prison Fellowship, and Amnesty International, and some prison personnel reported that torture was widespread. In Douala’s New Bell Prison and other minimum-security detention centers, prison guards inflicted beatings, and authorities reportedly chained prisoners or at times flogged them in their cells. Overcrowding was pervasive. Officials held prisoners in dilapidated, colonial-era prisons, where the number of inmates was as much as four to five times the intended capacity.
Physical Conditions: During a July 16 visit to Yaounde’s Kondengui Central Prison, the NCHRF received grievances from detainees that included severe overcrowding and lack of beds. The commission reported that prison officials accepted bribes for beds and better living areas of up to 25,000 CRA francs ($50), an amount prohibitively expensive for most detainees.
In December 2011 the country’s 74 prisons, with a capacity for 16,995 inmates, housed 24,000 prisoners and detainees, including 493 women and 916 juveniles. As of July the Yaounde Kondengui Central Prison, built to hold 1,000 persons, held 4,000 prisoners and detainees, of whom 211 were juveniles. The large number of pretrial detainees, who constituted 70 percent of those incarcerated nationwide, exacerbated overcrowding.
In June Le Messager newspaper reported that more than 1,000 detainees and prisoners slept on the ground or on pieces of cardboard in Douala’s New Bell Prison. Guards and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported rapes among inmates. Individuals incarcerated in the New Bell Prison and Yaounde’s Kondengui Central Prison for homosexual acts suffered discrimination by and violence from other inmates.
Deficiencies in health care and sanitation, which were common in all prisons, remained a significant problem. Disease and illness were widespread, and inmates did not receive adequate medical care.
Lack of adequate health care resulted in the death of prisoners. On April 29, Armand Tchuissi, a convict, died from an allergic reaction to a painkiller in the Nkonsamba (Littoral Region) Principal Prison, when prison authorities failed to transfer him to the hospital for treatment.
Potable water was inadequate, and officials expected prisoners’ families to provide food for their family members. For example, New Bell Prison contained seven water taps for approximately 2,000 prisoners, contributing to poor hygiene, illness, and death.
The daily food allocation per prisoner was 228 CFA francs (approximately 45 cents). Corruption among prison personnel was widespread. Pretrial detainees reported that prison guards sometimes required them, under threat of abuse, to pay “cell fees,” money paid to prevent further abuse. Prisoners bribed wardens for special favors or treatment, including temporary freedom, beds, and transfer to less-crowded areas of the prisons.
Due to their inability to pay fines, some prisoners remained in prison after completing their sentences or receiving court orders of release.
There were two separate prisons for women and a few pretrial detention centers for women; however, officials routinely held women in police and gendarmerie complexes with men, occasionally in the same cells. Mothers sometimes chose to be incarcerated with their children if the children were very young or if they had no other childcare options. Conditions for male and female inmates were equally poor. Authorities often incarcerated juvenile prisoners with adults, occasionally in the same cells or wards. There were credible reports that adult inmates sexually abused juvenile prisoners. Officials routinely also held pretrial detainees in cells with convicted criminals.
In temporary holding cells within police or gendarme facilities, officials held together adult men, juveniles, and women. Detainees usually received no food, water, or medical care. Detainees whose families knew of their incarceration relied on their relatives for food and medicine. Overcrowding was common. Detention center guards accepted bribes from detainees in return for access to better conditions, including permission to stay in an office instead of a cell.
Many citizens in the North and Far North regions turned to traditional chiefs, or lamibe, for dispute resolution, and the government continued to permit lamibe to detain temporarily persons until they transferred them to the police or gendarmerie and the judicial system. Such detentions could last several weeks or months, depending on the gravity of the offense, the distance to the nearest security office, and the availability of lamibe, security officers, complainants, and transportation. According to human rights defense groups, including Defense des Droits de l’Homme et des Consommateurs du Sahel, the Movement for the Defense of Human Rights and Liberties, and SOS Droits de l’Homme, allegations continued of private prisons that had reputations for serious abuse within the palaces of the traditional chiefdoms of Rey Bouba, Gashiga, Bibemi, and Tcheboa. For example, jailors in these private prisons allegedly often tied some prisoners to a post with chains attached to their wrists and ankles.
Administration: Recordkeeping on prisoners was inadequate, although the Ministry of Justice had begun to computerize case files. Catholic Relief Services’ Pride Project continued to implement a program to improve recordkeeping in prisons. While authorities did not use alternatives to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, the Pride Project worked on alternatives to sentencing and made proposals to the government. Authorities allowed prisoners access to visitors and religious observance. Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship. The country had no prison ombudsman. However, the NCHRF conducted investigations in 2011 and during the year.
Monitoring: The government permitted international humanitarian organizations access to prisoners. Both the local Red Cross and the NCHRF made infrequent, unannounced prison visits during the year. The government continued to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit prisons, and the ICRC conducted visits during the year in accordance with standard modalities.
Improvements: The government continued its efforts to improve prison conditions. In March 2011 the penitentiary administration presented an assessment of the modernization of prisons that the government launched in 2008. According to the report, the government’s initiative resulted in the total renovation of 47 prisons, the construction of 27 wells, and the purchase of 10 vehicles to transport prisoners, two pick-ups, one minibus, and two trucks. The administration also acquired more beds and mattresses.
In early August Lawyers without Borders organized a workshop to train penitentiary administrators in the Douala New Bell Prison. The training focused on communication in the cells and in the prison as a whole and on providing special attention to vulnerable groups such as women.