For several months, Cameroon has been facing a new a more virulent phase of increased contamination and deaths due to Covid-19.
The situation is more preoccupying inside prisons across the country, and this is because of overcrowding usually accompanied by insalubrity and great promiscuity which are incompatible with the rule of hygiene and favours the spread of Coronavirus.
Public authorities in Cameroon have recognised the upsurge in Covid-19 cases and the Minister of Justice and Keeper of the seals, Laurent Esso, acknowleges that it is very difficult to enforce preventive measures, notably physical distancing within the prison environment.
As a result of these, prisoners are exposed to Covid-19.
A recent study carried out by the government of Cameroon in 21 detention facilities (prisons) in the country indicates that about 700 inmates are contaminated (Covid-19 positive)
Results of the study were published last March 25, 2021, during the meeting of the Inter-ministerial Committee responsible for evaluating and monitoring the implementation of the government’s strategy against the Coronavirus pandemic.
Cameroon, it should be noted counts some 70 prisons.
With less than half of Cameroon’s prisons considered during the study, it is difficult for the government to give reliable statistics on the actual rate of infections in prisons and consequently of Covid-19 deaths.
The government of Cameroon has not just folded it’s arms in the face of this critical situation in the prisons.
It is true that physical distancing, and poor hygienic conditions are difficult to deal with in overcrowded prisons, the administration has taken some preventive measures amongst which is limiting visits to prisoners.
Limiting visits to prisoners has shown it’s limits, since News Upfront talked to over 12 inmates and the feedback is that they consider the measure as a punishment.
“When you prevent our family members from visiting us, does it change the fact that we are packed like sardine fish in here? Can it prevent the virus from spreading, what if the lone visitor you allow comes in with the virus and preads it to one of us? it’s unfortunate” recounts a detainee of the Anglophone crisis who chose to hide his identity.
Most of the detainees want to respect the physical distancing prescribed by the government in it’s response plan against Coronavirus but there actually is no way due to overcrowding.
A possible Option
The challenges faced by prisoners coupled with the risks of contaminating Covid-19 is not a Cameroonian issue, but worldwide.
Aware of it, the United Nations has repeatedly called on nations to proceed with the decongestion of prisons in order to ease the respect of barrier measures against the pandemic.
In 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that Covid-19 is likely to cause more harm than good if governments fail to unclog prisons by releasing some less dangerous prisoners.
“Those detained solely for their political views or other forms of activism should certainly not be treated more harshly or put at greater risk, …I call for the unconditional release of Human Rights defenders, peaceful demonstrators, lawyers, political prisoners and all other persons deprived of their liberty for exercising their views or rights” she declared in October.
If this recommendation has been largely followed by several countries across Africa and the world such as Ethiopia, Morocco, Libya, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea, the case of Cameroon is different.
Paul Biya, through a decree on April 16, 2020, during the first wave of Covid-19 released certain detainees but not enough to actually unclog the country’s prisons especially larger ones like the Yaoundé Central Prison in Kondengui and the Douala New Bell Prison.
The move alone made is evident that the best possible option to contain Covid-19 in prisons is to decongest the detention facilities.
Politicians and some Civil Society Activists have been on the neck of the government to decongest prisons as one of the measures to respond to the spread of the virus.
But how can prisoners be liberated without exposing the society to further dangers since the prisoners would definitely be integrated into the society?
The National President of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement, CRM party, Prof. Maurice Kamto, in a public statement on the urgency of decongesting prisons for Humanitarian reasons in the context of the new wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Cameroon says the government should be more proactive by finding a fair and appropriate humanitarian formula to finally unclog the prisons. He says it is a real humanitarian emergency owing to the detention conditions in the country.
“The government cannot allow tens of thousands of detainees, mostly remand prisoners, who populate the country’s prisons to see their detention turn into a disguised death sentence.” Kamto said in his statement adding that;
“Not taking the humanitarian decision that the current situation in our prisons requires in the face of this new wave of the Covid-19 would be tantamount to voluntarily allowing an objective focus for the spread of the Coronavirus to develop and, consequently, to favour the persistence, or even the worsening of the pandemic underway in Cameroon”.
According to Maurice Kamto, those to be released are those whose liberation would not endanger the society, but will instead give way for barrier measures to be strictly implemented in prisons.
– The Elderly in jail,
– Individuals with Co-mobidity,
– Minors and Pepetrators of minor offences,
– Pregnant women,
– Embezzlers of state funds who are ready to refund,
-People desperately waiting trial beyond legal deadlines,
– Anglophone detainees,
– CRM militants and sympathisers arrested during the September 2020 peaceful marches…etc.
Other opinions hold that such individuals could be transfered from the present prisons to special detention facilities set up within the context of the government’s response plan.