YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Against the backdrop of horrible prison conditions in the Ivory Coast, the country’s bishops are urging the government to relieve the overcrowding of the country’s detention facilities.
Bishop Antoine Koné of Odienné, the president of the bishops’ commission for social pastoral care, said on Divine Mercy Sunday the Resurrection of Christ means freedom for all.
“The Sepulcher of Christ is open,” the bishop said. “Is this not an invitation to open all the prison-tombs scattered here and there where so many of our brothers and sisters languish, who very often, claim their innocence and whose cry does not seem to be heard by those who could help them to resuscitate?”
According to statistics gathered by the commission for social pastoral care, around 16,000 prisoners are now squeezed into the country’s 34 prisons, which were designed to hold around 4,000 people.
Koné is now calling for the prisons to be decongested, proposing that the president grant clemency to inmates accused of minor crimes. He also called for the recruitment of more judges to speed up the trial process, since many of those imprisoned are awaiting trial – and therefore have not even been convicted of a crime.
“That will give a human face to our places of detention and correction and could be beneficial to all innocent people languishing in our prisons, and who end up by losing hope in life, and dying as a consequence,” the bishop said.
Koné said overcrowding in prisons was having a negative effect on the health of inmates: Living in inadequate hygienic and sanitation conditions, the inmates are frequently victims of diseases like diarrhea and dysentery.
Amnesty International issued a report last year detailing the horrendous detention conditions in one of the country’s prisons based in the capital, Abidjan.
“Prisoners remained held under harsh conditions and overcrowding at the Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction, Abidjan’s main prison. In March, the prison authorities said that the prison, which had capacity for 1,500 inmates, held 3,694 people. Prisoners reported that they were forced to pay bribes of up to 20,000 CFA (US$32) to prisoners who controlled internal security to avoid being placed in filthy cells with floors covered in urine and water. Families were forced to pay bribes to visit their relatives. Prisoners responsible for internal security also administered corporal punishment on other inmates, resulting in at least three deaths in 2015. The authorities did not take measures to protect prisoners from these and other abuses. Health care remained inadequate. One prison guard and nine prisoners were killed in February during an exchange of fire when prisoners staged an uprising.”
The Amnesty International report said the prison witnessed outbreaks of cholera in 1991 and 2003, and that food quality in the facility is low. The report also indicates that people already serving prison terms are never separated from those awaiting trial.
A Christian association that works to improve prison conditions in the Ivory Coast, Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, known by its French acronym Acat, attributes the over-crowding in prisons to the rather large number of inmates “in unjustified preventive detention.”
“According to statistics from the prisons administration, 40 percent of inmates are on preventive detention. The detainees are very often in preventive detention and for many of them, their detention periods go far beyond the legal deadlines prescribed by the law,” Acat’s Francis Koné – no relation to the bishop – told La Croix, the French Catholic daily newspaper.
“Unfortunately, it so happens that many detainees die without ever being judged,” he said.
The deplorable conditions, especially in facilities for minors, has drawn the attention of the United Nations.
After visiting the Abidjan Minor Observation Center in 2016, Mohammed Ayat, the United Nations Independent Expert on the Ivory Coast complained about the conditions.
“Meeting children held in the Abidjan Minor Observation Centre was one of the most touching moments of my mission. Their living conditions are unacceptable; efforts should be made by the government, with the support of technical and financial partners, to develop a more appropriate structure,” he said.
Ayat also expressed concern about the fact there is often little separation between children and adult detainees.
Despite these challenges, the Church still has hope the government can improve the situation.
“The people of the Ivory Coast are waiting for you [political leaders] to build bridges, which would undoubtedly support the social climate and encourage the development of those who question the future,” Koné said, according to Fides.
The bishop said that beyond the dictionary definition of prison as “a building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they have committed or while awaiting trial,” people can be locked up in the moral and spiritual prisons of hatred, presumption, pride, indifference and corruption.