(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

UN condemns nation's prison conditions

[Cote d'Ivoire] Sick prisoners at Dimbokro jail, May 2005.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cote d'Ivoire on Thursday issued a scathing report on the country's penitentiary system, saying people were being held in overcrowded, unsanitary, crumbling prisons, with severe malnutrition a leading cause of death.

The report also cited extended provisional custody, lack of health care and aging infrastructure as among the problems in Cote d'Ivoire's 33 prisons.

In March, prisons in the government-run south held 9,274 prisoners for a total of 3,371 places, with men, women, and children detained in "extremely precarious" conditions, said Francoise Simard of the UN mission's Rule of Law unit. It investigated the prisons over a two-year period in collaboration with penitentiary experts.

Malnutrition is a main cause of death in jail, the report said. Each prisoner receives an average of one meal per day worth 120 CFA ($ 0.30), less than one-third of what is being paid in surrounding countries. Coupled with the absence of health care and AIDS prevention policies, and a general lack of hygiene due to a shortage of water and soap, prisoners are dying in fairly high numbers, said prison advisor John Rose.

"Mortality rates are high but the statistics are fluid and it's almost impossible to know what people die of as most deaths are registered as 'natural death'," Rose said.

The last decree outlining daily meals for prisoners dates from 1952, and allocates different rations for African and European detainees.

Many prisons in Cote d'Ivoire are former warehouses, while others were built at the time of the nation's independence from France in 1960. The report says most institutions are in "very bad condition" as they haven't been expanded for increasing prison populations over the past 24 years.

Prisons in the government south are run by a penitentiary administration within the Justice Ministry, but money allocated to prisons is insufficient, and prisons directors are not allowed to manage their own budget, the report said.

In the rebel-held north, the justice system collapsed at the outbreak of civil war four years ago. Prisons were partially or wholly destroyed and all records disappeared during the fighting. Untrained volunteers now serve as prison guards for detainees who have never passed before a judge.

"Without hope of regularly being judged, [the prisoners] are being held in a sort of permanent provisional custody until the zone commander or the police prefect in charge decides to release them," the report said.

The New Forces rebel movement allocates a small budget for meals, but there is not enough food, and guards have to share meals with prisoners.

Cote d'Ivoire has been split between a rebel-held north and a government-run south since insurgents failed to topple President Laurent Gbagbo in a September 2002 coup attempt.

The report calls for a drastic and far-reaching overhaul of Cote d'Ivoire penal system. Among the recommendations are setting up policies against AIDS and tuberculosis; training prison staff; recruiting additional guards; increasing the budget of the penitentiary administration; and setting up an emergency programme for the rehablitation of prisons.


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