Prison conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding and inadequate food, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of medical care.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was pervasive in most prisons, especially in major urban centers. Officials held prisoners in dilapidated, colonial-era prisons, where the number of inmates was as much as four to five times the intended capacity. Sanitation, food, and medical care were wholly inadequate. Although authorities held that sick persons were detained separately from the general population, this was often not the case.
In August the country’s prisons, which have an intended capacity of 17,000, had 26,702 inmates, according to the minister of justice speaking during a cabinet meeting on August 28. In an interview published in the Cameroon Tribune newspaper on September 2, the minister further indicated that the Yaounde Kondengui Central Prison, with an intended capacity of 1,500, had 4,234 inmates; the Douala New Bell prison with an initial capacity of 500 was upgraded to 960 through renovation and expansion over the years but held 3,150 prisoners as of August. The other prisons faced similar problems. The Maroua Central Prison, for instance, established in 1935 to accommodate up to 250 inmates, had 1,360, including approximately 50 women and 50 children. The Nkongsamba Prison, with an intended capacity of 200, had 432 inmates, while the Bertoua Central Prison, with an intended capacity of 120, held 680 inmates. As of March 3, the Garoua Central Prison, designed for 500, held 1,652 inmates.
There were two separate prisons and a few pretrial detention centers for women, but officials routinely held women in police and gendarmerie complexes with men. Occasionally, women were allowed to spend the night in an office or a corridor when there were men in the cells.
Deaths from illness, malnutrition, and lack of medical care occurred, and deficiencies in health care and sanitation remained significant problems. Physical abuse by prison guards, as well as prisoner-on-prisoner violence, was a problem, and “disciplinary cells” were often used to enforce discipline. Illustrative of overcrowded conditions, according to media outlets, on March 28, inmates of the Garoua Central Prison attempted a mass escape in protest against what they referred to as inhuman detention conditions. The incident began when 22 prisoners were locked into a 40-square-foot disciplinary cell as a punitive measure. One of the prisoners, who reportedly had asthma, suffocated and died overnight after prison guards on duty refused to open the door when alerted by other detainees. The following morning when prison guards attempted to take away the corpse, the other occupants of the discipline cell revolted. The news quickly spread throughout the prison, leading to a general riot.
Disease and illness were widespread, and sick inmates were not systematically and promptly separated from the general population, for lack of facilities. For instance, as of March 23, Garoua Central Prison, with a population of more than 1,600 inmates, had one single-patient room for both contagious and noncontagious diseases. The room was equipped with two observation beds, and the prison had access to four additional beds at the Garoua Central Hospital. The prison had one doctor, three nurses, two nursing assistants, and one laboratory technician, who, in addition to servicing the Garoua Central Prison, had to provide for the health needs of four other principal prisons in the North Region.
Malnutrition, tuberculosis, bronchitis, and numerous other untreated conditions, including infections, parasites, dehydration, and diarrhea, were rampant. Overall, doctors and medicine were inadequate. Many convicts spent their sentences moving between the prison yard and the hospital ward as they were infected and reinfected with illnesses, according to the Ministry of Justice Report on Human Rights in Cameroon for 2014 (released December 2015). The budget allocated for prisoner health in 2014 was CFA francs 157,740,000 ($255,000), the same total as in 2013, representing an average of CFA francs 6,572 per inmate ($10), according to the same report.
Potable water and food were inadequate, and officials expected prisoners’ families to provide food for their family members. Prisoners generally had one meal a day. In 2014 the budget allocated for feeding prisoners throughout the country was CFA francs 2,313,799,000 ($3.8 million), amounting to an average daily food allocation of CFA francs 263 ($0.43).
Corruption among prison personnel was reportedly widespread. 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 imprisoned after completing their sentences or receiving court orders of release.
In temporary holding cells within police or gendarme facilities, officials held adult men, juveniles, and women together. 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 for dispute resolution. The government claimed there were no private prisons in the country. There continued to be reports, however, of private detention facilities with reputations for serious abuse within the palaces of some traditional chiefdoms, including Tcheboa in the North Region. On August 26, the Garoua High Court sentenced Moussa Boubakari, the lamido of Tcheboa, to a two-year prison term plus a fine, following a lawsuit by a plaintiff, Gouma Damga, for “arbitrary arrest and detention.” According to media reports, Moussa Boubakari was sentenced in 2002 for a similar offense but never served the prison term.
Administration: Although the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) reported improvements in a few prisons in 2014, recordkeeping on prisoners was inadequate, especially in holding cells at police and gendarmerie premises, where detainees often were not registered. Independent authorities often investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted international humanitarian organizations access to prisoners. The NCHRF and other NGOs, including the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Archdiocese, made infrequent, unannounced prison visits during the year. The government continued to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons, and the organization conducted visits during the year.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that human rights activists attempting to visit prisoners were required to pay bribes to prison officials. Some human rights activists, however, reported they were unable to obtain the necessary permits to visit prisoners. For example, NGOs reported they were denied access to Marafa Hamidou Yaya, including while he was at the Yaounde General Hospital receiving treatment. In response the government insisted that proper procedures requesting access were not followed.
Improvements: In May the National Program for Participatory Development donated 40 mattresses and 20 beds for inmates of the Douala New Bell Central Prison as a contribution to the improvement of detention conditions.
The registrar of Maroua Central Prison reported some improvements in prison conditions. Specifically, the prison constructed a separate wing for minors and women, and the number of doctors increased from one to two for the region.