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Last Updated: Monday, 9 April 2007, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
Surviving prison life in Cameroon
Buea Central Prison Courtyard

The BBC's Francis Ngwa Niba describes the harsh realities of prison life after a rare visit by a journalist to a Cameroonian jail.

I went to Buea Central Prison in south-west Cameroon when inmates on death row, petty criminals and young offenders crowded into the jail's courtyard to flex their muscles for their weekly sports break.

Like many jails across Africa it is overcrowded, housing more than 300 prisoners in old stone colonial buildings - more than double its intended capacity.

"Prison life is very very hard," says Ngangue Alaine, who was sentenced to death for armed robbery.

The prisoners say they receive a daily food ration which can be anything from uncooked rice to six green bananas.

Formerly we used to put stubborn prisoners in chains; we used to suspend their legs up some days
Prison guard

"The food we are given, even a bird will not survive on it," Mr Alaine says, adding that on days he can afford it, he has to buy kerosene to cook his ration.

Some enterprising inmates run small craft businesses to earn money for their survival, using guards to get raw material from outside prison and then selling their products.

Others rely on their relatives, although many find their families abandon them when they are sentenced.

Witchcraft

The lone female prisoner I met, 47-year-old Jenny Moki, said she was lucky enough to get regular visits from her husband and daughters.

A prisoner holding a cooking pot
Prisoners must cook their own daily food ration

Jailed more than a year ago, the grey-haired former beer seller says she has another eight months to serve for witchcraft.

"My neighbour accused me of using witchcraft to lure customers drinking at her bar to buy from me instead," she says.

"One thing led to another, I had a fight with her son, wounded him and while detained, I was asked to sign a document saying I would be held responsible if any of her relatives fell ill or died.

"I refused to sign the document, was taken to court and was sentenced."

While she says conditions have not been good, they have not been as bad as she imagined.

Until recently the prison had no toilet facilities, but a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Help Out, has built some basic ablution areas.

Map

As one prison guard told me, the NGO's intervention has influenced other areas of life.

"Formerly we used to put stubborn prisoners in chains; we used to suspend their legs up some days," he says.

"But now with the human rights system we've reduced all these sanctions."

He dismissed accusations that inmates are treated inhumanely.

"Compared to other prisons in Cameroon our prisoners are well fed. They have around 1kg of food every day. We in Buea take very good care of them."

Changes

The iron beds the prisoners sleep on today are the same beds the first occupants slept on 80 years ago.

Eka Fabian
Stay straight.... You might not survive prison life if you are caught
Eka Fabian, imprisoned for 26 years

But the 13 young offenders I met - some playing table tennis during my visit - no longer sleep in the same dormitories as other inmates.

"We discovered that young offenders were lumped into the same wards with hardened criminals and we thought this was not proper," Help Out's Clarkson Obasi says.

"We then decided to construct a separate section for them.

"We never miss an opportunity to tell prison officials that basic rights still must be respected and things are gradually improving."

Those on death row often have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, as President Paul Biya opposes the death penalty and no public executions have been held during his 24 years in office.

Eka Fabian, a Nigerian originally sentenced to death in 1983 for armed robbery, is set to be released in three years time.

Reflecting on his 26 years inside, he advises people to think twice before crossing the law.

"Stay straight and don't commit any crimes. You might not survive prison life if you are caught and sentenced," he says.




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Cameroon
05 Mar 03 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Cameroon
04 Mar 03 |  Country profiles

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