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'Hell on Earth' New Bell Prison in Douala
Cameroon's penitentiary system needs reforms
Yemti Harry Ndienla (mcyemtih)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-04-04 11:43 (KST)   
About two years ago, a Cameroonian journalist working for the BBC in London described the situation in the New Bell prison located in the heart of the country's economic capital of Douala, as "hell on Earth." For those who have never been to this prison, the comparison might sound a bit out of place, but those who have been detained in there or visited it will not be surprised by the comparison.

The biblical or imaginary hell is that place where many people believe sinners here on Earth will end up in fire after their transition from this world. Yet comparing the New Bell prison to hell is just an indication of the high degree of suffering that living human beings -- some of them innocent people awaiting trial -- go through in the New Bell prison. Sad to say often some of them end up dying there.

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The death of a young foreigner by the name of Basile Ekeme sometime in January this year in that prison comes to revive the debate on conditions of detention in our prisons, and poses the question of whether people are sent to jail to die or to be rehabilitated.

The New Bell prison happens to be the place par excellence where people are sent to die and has now come to symbolize the bad shape of what Cameroonian prisons have become known to be.

The detention facility that was originally built to house less than 1,000 detainees, today counts more than 4,000 prisoners. This explosion in the population has over the years created problems linked with the health, hygiene, sanitation and the general welfare of the detainees.

Visitors to the New Bell prison have most often been horrified by the poor sanitation condition of prisoners. Most prisoners in the prisons have no place to sleep let alone beds. A good number of them don't have clothes to wear thus forcing them to be permanently in their hide outs. Among those who even succeed to have something like clothes, such clothes are usually in the form of rags.

Hardened criminals have chains on their legs with large unprotected wounds caused by the chains. Feeding conditions are the worst that a human being can think of. With such conditions, and lack of any medical attention, most prisoners are patients of illnesses such as TB, skin diseases, malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition etc.

Under these conditions, "it is estimated that on the average three to four prisoners die in the New Bell prison on a weekly basis," reports Business and Politics newspaper.

The irony of this silent killing is that often when a prisoner is in ill health nothing is done until the prisoner is dead or reaches a dying point before he or she is transferred and dumped at the Laquintine Hospital, where they end up in the mortuary unattended to.

It is estimated that a majority of the unclaimed corpses that are abandoned at the Laquintine Hospital mortuary are inmates of the New Bell prison.

"One month before the young foreigner died, a friend visited him though sick, but relatively still in control of himself, he saw death coming when he told his friend with tears in his eyes that 'I know that I will die in this place. Please make sure that you do every thing so that my parents back home know that I am dead,'" the paper reported further in an editorial.

The question one is tempted to ask is why is there this state of affairs? And why can the government of Cameroon not take actions that will help give a humane face to prison conditions in the country? One of the most serious and acute problems facing the New Bell prison in particular and others in general is one of personnel, lack of space and the obsolete nature of the facilities required to welcome prisoners.

A couple of months ago prison officials nationwide staged a protest demanding the government to improve their working conditions among many other grievances. Instead the government misunderstood their action and some prison officials were detained to face court action.

It's worth recalling here that a foreign donor opted to provide funding for the construction of a bigger and modern prison for the city of Douala about five years ago. Could the government inform Cameroonians on the development of this file?

Another problem concerns the health care of prisoners. It is inconceivable that a prison with over 4,000 inmates should not have a permanent medical officer and enough paramedics to cater for the inmates considering the poor and unhygienic conditions.

The same sad situation exists for prisoners elsewhere in the prisons of Cameroon. Late last year a group of activists who were arrested and incarcerated in the Bamenda Central prison recounted how they were forced to eat a dead horse. Similar tales have been told in the past by SCNC detainees in the Kondengui prison because of the inhuman conditions under which they were detained.

Ayaba Martin, publisher of Business and Politics newspaper, says decision makers -- especially those who have the powers and the means to make our prisons better -- are usually indifferent to this demand until one day they discover when they are arrested and sent there, that the prison is not hell on Earth but an integral part of the society in which we live. Let the government give a human face to our prisons.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Yemti Harry Ndienla

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