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CONGO: Decay, disease, violence stalk convicts

Photo: Andrew ITOUA/IRIN
Brazzaville maison d'arret, the country's central prison where decay, disease and violence stalk inmates.
BRAZZAVILLE, 17 May 2006 (PlusNews) - Inside the crumbling, mildewed walls of Brazzaville's prison in the capital of the Republic of Congo (ROC), up to 12 men share cells designed to hold four inmates. The cells have neither running water, nor toilets, and the few belongings convicts have are hung on nails or strewn across the filthy floor.

"There are serious problems with this facility," Clive Obambi, a repeat offender who is serving time for theft, said. "The daily food ration is meagre, and we live in conditions that are hard to bear."

In addition, because of the slowness in processing case files, a prisoner can spend up to eight months in custody before arraignment.

The situation is much the same in the six other prisons and numerous police jails throughout the country. According to government authorities, the country's prison population, although variable, is around 900, with nearly 400 confined in Brazzaville.

Joel Ngambouma, 36, recounted his four-day incarceration in 2005 at the Talangai Police Station in the north of Brazzaville, for having swindled a neighbour.

"You have to sleep on the floor in the dark. You have to relieve yourself on the spot," he said, adding that for anything else you have to use a plastic container.

"Apart from the horrible smells, you have to fight off insects," he said.

The state prosecutor at the Brazzaville County Court, Alphonse Dinard Moubangat, concurs with Ngambouma.

"Prisons in Congo are obsolete and do not meet international standards," Moubangat said.

When the Brazzaville Central Prison was built in the 1960s it was designed to hold a maximum of 100 inmates; it often holds four times that number.

Violence and disease

Overcrowding and poor hygiene conspire to create prime conditions for violence and disease. Although no hard data is available, the prevalence rates for rape and sexually transmitted diseases in correctional facilities in ROC are high. Prison officials have little or no means to prevent incidents of violence or treat inmates who are injured or ill.

"Although homosexuality is illegal and frowned upon in Congolese society, the practice is a reality in prisons," said Martin Inana, the HIV/AIDS programme administrator at the Brazzaville office of the United Nations Children's Fund.

"Adolescents are prey; sodomy and rape are frequent," he said.

Sexual violence is commonplace in police jails as well. One inmate, who declined to be identified, said three fellow prisoners had sodomised him for hours when he was being held at Brazzaville Central Police Station.

Such appalling conditions can be even worse for women inmates. Loamba Moke, president of Univers Carceral (or ADHUC), a human rights group that advocates on behalf of inmates, cited the case of a woman awaiting trial for murder at a prison in Djambala, the main town in Plateaux Department, in the north of the country. The authorities put her in a men's prison for three days because of lack of space elsewhere. The result? She was gang raped.

Most prisoners' complaints are not investigated, so it is difficult to quantify the extent and scope of sexual abuse. Testimonies from many former prisoners, however, indicate that sexual violence is common and increasing.

"Indisputably, the situation is getting worse," Moke said.

The hazardous prison environment leads to inmates contracting HIV or suffering from AIDS-related illnesses like tuberculosis, the leading HIV-opportunistic disease.

"The small cells these prisoners share are not ventilated and do not have windows," said a former prisoner called Giap. "The fact that some people cough nonstop or have fevers does not worry anyone."

Malnutrition, which would compromise anyone's health, is even more dangerous for prisoners living with HIV/AIDS. A balanced, nutritious diet is essential to fighting the virus. Twice a day, prisoners eat meals based on rice, tined foods or salt fish. They seldom eat meals of fresh fish or meat.

Some prisons allow inmates to leave facilities during the day for medical treatment, which is paid for by relatives. However, associations committed to helping inmates with HIV/AIDS said prison officials only took people to hospital when their health situation was desperate and, often, it was too late.

Authorities do not release figures for those who die in prison, but anecdotal reports suggest the number is high.

As part of its efforts to stem the AIDS pandemic - the prevalence rate in ROC is 4.2 percent - the government has launched an HIV-prevention programme in the Brazzaville prison, said Cyrille Louya, head of the HIV/AIDS Unit in the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The first step is an awareness campaign for inmates and prison staff on the modes of HIV and tuberculosis transmission. It is in this regard that the National Aids Council has set up Louya's unit in the ministry.

The next step is to identify, progressively, all the HIV-positive prisoners and give them access to antiretroviral treatments (ARVs).

Prisoner reaction

In April, squalid conditions at the Brazzaville prison led inmates to take the prison director hostage for several hours to call attention to their plight. The minister of justice and human rights, Gabriel Entsa-Ebia, was able to secure the director's release by providing food to the inmates. It was only a stopgap measure, however, as the rations lasted only a few days.

The country is saddled with massive financial problems in virtually every sector, and the monthly budget for prisoners' food nationwide is only 12 million francs CFA (US $23,000). This amount falls far short of that required to feed approximately 900 people, according to Jean Ibela Ibel, the director-general of penal administration.

"We sometimes wait three months before getting a single franc and must, therefore, seek a loan," he said. "When we finally get the money, it is often only half of the budget or even less."

That is why Ibela Ibel asked civil society bodies to speak out about the prisons conditions, since the state had proven its incapacity to improve the situation.

However, the government says it will try to solve the problem of overcrowding. It has announced its intension to begin building new prisons by the end of the year in the administrative divisions of Lekoumou Department in the country's southwest, as well as Cuvette and in Cuvette-Ouest departments, in central Congo.

For those who are currently incarcerated, such proposals offer little consolation within the context of their daily lives.

"What I would like to say for once is that the authorities have an obligation to treat prisoners with dignity and respect their human rights," Obambi said.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Other


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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