It’s dark. You’re in a cell. You’re not alone: there are bodies slumped around you. Some of them are asleep on piles of clothes – at least, you hope they’re just sleeping. Some of them have their arms and legs chained. The smell from the single bucket you all use as a toilet is overwhelming in the heat.
You’re hungry: as usual, you were given one plate of gombo (okra) and boule (bread) to share between everyone in the cell today. But more overwhelming than the sewage stench or the hunger pains is your thirst. Water is sacred in here. No one uses it for washing – there’s barely enough to drink. The guards ask for bribes for drinking water. You don’t have anything to give them.
Sometimes it’s days before any food or water comes. You worry you have been forgotten about – you have heard stories of people left to rot. You don’t doubt that they’re true. You don’t know when you’ll leave. A release date means nothing in here. They go past, no one notices.
This might sound like a scene-setting exercise for some dystopian novel, but it’s not. You’re in Chad. You’re one of the country’s 4,831 prisoners. It is 2012.
The conditions of prison life in Chad right now beggar belief. Amnesty researchers visited six of Chad’s 45 prisons during this year and last. Their research is published today in a new report, Chad: We Are All Dying Here. As you can guess, it’s heavy-hearted reading. But if you have time and are interested in just how a scene like the one I've described above can still be expected - common pratice, even - today under regular state governance, I urge you to read it for yourself.
I can’t summarise the report in a blog, but I can introduce it. So, assuming you have dinner to make, work to do, a train to catch, friends to meet – here’s a quick introduction to Chad’s prisons in 2012.
Shackled prisoners in Abéché Prison, Chad, March 2012 © Amnesty International
All ages, mixed sex cells
Everyone’s together. Men and women, children and adults, civilians and soldiers, those who have been sentenced and those who have not. This leaves women and children in particular (although not exclusively) open to rape and sexual assault by other inmates and the guards who are supposed to care for them. For example, in Moussoro Prison, in January of this year, three guards attempted to rape 13 sleeping women in their cell. The group of women had been moved on from their previous prison (N’Djamena) after the same thing had happened there. They raised the alarm at Moussoro and were moved to Amsinene Prison. How can they trust the guards there?
In rooms supposedly set aside for children, inmates at Abéché prison can enjoy a cell of their own, and access to fresh air. The children for whom these rooms are meant for instead sleep among the adults in the ‘non VIP’ overcrowded cells. This costs, of course, so if you have bribes for the guards you’re in with a better chance of your own cell. No bribe? Sorry, you’re back in with the rest.
Forgotten…for a year and a half
One fifteen-year-old boy my colleagues met had spent over a year and a half in prison without the local prosecutor knowing he was there. It’s a common experience.
A lack of real infrastructure and reporting across the country means that individuals can easily get ‘lost’ in the penal system, neither facing trial nor being released. At the same time, release dates go by and prisoners remain behind bars – sometimes for years after they were due to walk free.
And the 4,831 prisoners mentioned earlier is only an estimate. The government's official incarceration numbers don't seem to tally up; one prison we investigated, Moundou, had 13 registered prisoners unaccounted for – staff couldn’t give any explanation as to their whereabouts.
Dying of thirst
Clean drinking water was not freely available in any of the six prisons my colleagues visited. Water is rarely used for washing, as so little is given to drink. Eventually, hygiene problems among the open sewers override dehydration problems.
Massakory Prison last year saw a particularly grim case of prisoners left to dehydrate. Prison reports documented four inmates found dead in their cells: ‘drool tainted with blood was coming from the mouth of each of the dead bodies in addition to a bloody viscous liquid that was flowing from their nostrils’. It is almost certain that they died from dehydration. Three of the four prisoners were found in chains, a common practice used to control inmates. To be unshackled at Massakory, inmates had to pay bribes to guards of around $70USD.
On the brink of starvation
Our researchers described most of the prisoners they saw as being ‘emaciated and weak’. They recorded many cases of food shortages, prisons being unable to pay their food bills and consequently having to serve a ‘collective plate’ to a group of up to ten prisoners to share, once a day.
Breastfeeding mothers don’t have enough food to sustain themselves, let alone to meet the nutritional needs of the child they’re carrying.
Despite the conditions described above – and more, in the report – not a single prison of those investigated by our researchers employs a health worker of any kind.
What can be done?
Well, this report is a step towards making sure that the conditions in Chad’s prisons are documented and publicised. The UN Human Rights Committee, the US government and numerous organisations have spoken out about the lack of a functional judiciary and penal service in Chad. And now it’s up to Chad’s government to work towards a system that meets international standards. Although it passed new laws last year that set to raise the standard of its prisons, this has meant little in reality. But we’ve got to keep the spotlight on the government until real changes are made.
Now, why not share this post with your social media networks? The more people that know about Chad's forgotten prisoners, the better. Because unless the Chadian government is pressured and critiqued (through reports such as this one) into working to salvage its failing prison system, things will continue the way they are. And right now, being imprisoned in Chad is all-too-often a deadly sentence.
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