In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Contra Nocendi wants to highlight how the situation affects prisoners in an already strained prison system in Cameroon. People in detention are completely reliant on the protection and care of the state and have limited possibilities to protect their health through social distancing and other measures. The detention centres in Cameroon are overcrowded, making the living conditions for the detainees impossible to bear under ordinary circumstances, but the spread of Covid-19 highlights the severe health risks. A presidential decree was issued on the 15th of April, granting some convicted prisoners a reduced sentence and commuting death sentences in order to facilitate a release of prisoners.i Several prisoners have reportedly been released since, which is welcomed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and civil society organisations alike.ii Contra Nocendi is pleased to learn about the presidential decree and the release of prisoners but remains concerned.
We have recently observed the current situation in the detention centres of Buea, which show that the situation requires further and increased efforts in order to improve the living conditions in the centres as well as effectively preventing a spread of Covid-19. During our visits in the detention centres in Buea, there were little evidence of any measures to curb the spread of the virus except for a bucket of water and soap placed at the entrance of police and gendarmes stations to wash their hands before entering. We further observed severe overcrowding in the Buea central prison, making the living conditions unbearable. The detainees expressed fear that the whole prison, inmates and warders alike, would quickly get infected in case someone got infected with Covid-19, since there are no preventive measures in place. Most of them said they cannot afford a face mask, and even if they could, it would be difficult to use due the heat and poor ventilation in the cells. We are deeply concerned by the information of 4 alleged deaths in the Kondengui prison in Yaounde that could be associated with Covid-19. Although these alleged cases are yet to be confirmed, we are deeply concerned by an imminent contamination in detention centres.
Contra Nocendi International and Contra Nocendi Cameroon strongly urge the authorities to:
· Substantially reduce overcrowding by increasing the efforts to release prisoners when possible. All persons eligible for early release in accordance with the presidential decree should be compiled on a list and promptly released. We urge the government to also include the release of detainees with minor offences.
· Take significant steps towards ending lengthy pre-trial detention, which is even more urgent considering the potential spread of Covid-19 and the severe overcrowding. The authorities should strictly apply the existing rules for bail for persons in pre-trial detention.
· Protect the health of all persons that remain in detention by introducing effective measures to prevent a potential spread of Covid-19, including enabling social distancing.
· Make sure all persons in detention have access to updated information about Covid-19 in the detention centre. Detainees have a right to be kept informed about Covid-19 and when they might have been exposed to the virus.
Contra Nocendi will continue to deploy and monitor the situation in the detention centres closely.