Hundreds of children are being kept behind bars in Cote d’Ivoire’s overcrowded adult prisons waiting on trial dates due to the country’s broken post-crisis criminal justice system.
According to Ivorian law, the accused have 15 days to be charged before a judge, but this deadline is rarely enforced and many accused – among them young teenagers – are left on remand for months on end.
Fifteen-year-old Brahima Keita* (not his real name) has been held on remand in a small, crowded cell in the country’s main jail, the Holding and Corrections Prison of Abidjan (known by its French acronym MACA) since December 2014, when he was arrested for an alleged armed robbery.
“If they want to condemn me, so be it,” he told IRIN. “But if they are going to release me, the judges should do so quickly. I do not want to go back into that hell,” he said, tears streaming down his face, during a meeting with his lawyer, in one of MACA’s visiting rooms.
After nearly six months of being detained, Keita still does not have a court date and he is not alone.
At MACA, there are at least 117 other children between the ages of 14 and 17 years who are being held without a trial date.
Meanwhile, at Man Prison, in the west of the country, 14 of its 504 child prisoners have no trial date, and 11 of the 70 minors in Daloa Penitentiary in the midwest, are still awaiting trial.
“The mass of files to be managed is enormous and we are drowning under the weight,” admitted a magistrate at an Abidjan court, who wished to remain anonymous.
“It must be said, with the post-crisis process that we had and those still in progress, that things have not been easy. We just do not have the human resources to deal with the cases in a timely manner. That’s what often makes the trials quite sloppy."
It is not just youngsters who are affected by the backlog. More than 2,000 adult prisoners are also “languishing” in their cells in MACA, the magistrate told IRIN.
But the physical, emotional and psychological effect on children of long spells of detention in an adult setting is a concern, warned Adele Khudr, representative for the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, in Cote d’Ivoire.
“There are a lot of prisoners, a lot of criminals, who can really cause intimation, even for adults,” she explained. “And if these criminals are even intimidating the adults, imagine how much they will be intimidating the children…It will render them much more vulnerable and expose them to violence and exploitation and abuse.”
Children are subject to prosecution in Cote d’Ivoire starting from the age of 10. Anyone under 13 years of age, is supposed to be placed into special detention centers, but many teenagers are still entered into the adult prison systems, due to lack of space.
Moreover, when the time comes to go on trial, children are put before the same judges as adults because there are no special minor-friendly courts in Cote d’Ivoire.
A senior official at Cote d’Ivoire’s National Commission for Human Rights, who declined to be named, told IRIN: “In Man [Prison] we found cases of abuse by adults who can easily access the cells where minors are kept, which themselves are practically in the same detention facilities as adults.”
And he said in some cases, including Daloa Prison, youngsters are even kept in the same cells as adult prisoners.
“The conditions of detention are not satisfactory at all and they are certainly not in line with the international standards, [which require] the complete separation of adults and children,” said UNICEF’s Khudr.
Marguerite Koffi, who runs the Ministry of Justice’s Judicial Protection of Children program, said the government is aware of the problem, but that it is difficult to enforce the guidelines that prisons are supposed to follow.
"We always advocate for greater protection of minors in the prison system,” she said. “They have a right to separation from other prisoners, but we find that this provision was not always respected.”
Many of the enforcement posts are held by unqualified or corrupt individuals, she said.
In 2011, more than $4 million was allocated to renovate prison areas for the youth, including creating classrooms and increasing the number of beds. But in reality few changes were made.
Koffi said plans are now underway at the government level to implement new mechanisms that will ensure that detained children receive an education, and are not placed in overcrowded, dirty or dangerous situations.
Appalling living quarters
MACA, which has an official capacity of 1,500 prisoners, currently houses more than 6,000 inmates and are being held for offenses ranging from petty theft to rape and murder.
Conditions are grim: The cells are cramped; the toilets non-functional; and there is no running water for bathing. A lack of hygiene, backed by inadequate medical treatment, has meant many of the young prisoners are in ill health.
Most of the young prisoners that IRIN spoke to said they slept on the floor because there were not enough mattresses or bedding to go around.
They said there were only a handful of torn mosquito nets available to protect them against malaria and visits from their parents or other family members were often denied for no reason.
"They treat our children like cattle,” said Fatoumata Diaby, whose 15-year-old son was accused of sexually assaulting a young girl. “The government made us believe that they are in good conditions and are given two meals a day, but in reality it is only a single meal. Most often, it is corn or millet porridge, with no vitamins.”
No hope for a future
For both minors who are awaiting trial and those that have already been convicted and are now serving their sentence, there are few opportunities to participate in school or other trade-education activities in the prison.
“When I arrived here, I had a background in mechanics,” said 16-year-old Cedric Kouakou*, who has been detained at MACA since August 2013 after he was accused of stealing. “Now they tell me I must be a carpenter, but there aren’t even the materials to practice that.”
Drissa Soro, a penitentiary guard at the Dimbokro Penitentiary, in central Cote d’Ivoire, told IRIN that he worries about the impact that being around “real” criminals will have on these impressionable youth.
“There really are no spaces that have been created to accommodate these young prisoners,” he said. “So they are in direct contact with gangsters and bandits.”
UNICEF says, however, that rather than improving the conditions within the prison, the focus needs to be on creating child-only correctional institutions.
“We believe the best thing is for them to be in an open space where they have access education and rehabilitation services, so that they can eventually reintegrate into their families and communities,” Khudr said.
The government says it has plans to open four such centers in 2016.
But many activists and child prisoners told IRIN they have little hope the newly proposed reforms will bring about any significant change any time soon.
“Everyone is working very hard on improving the juvenile justice system for children,” Khudr said. “But we are very far from reaching good conditions.”