Sub-Saharan States must protect detainees against COVID-19

In many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, prisons are overcrowded. Prisoners often live in squalid conditions and the healthcare systems inside prisons are extremely poor. The coronavirus pandemic makes detainees particularly vulnerable and at risk. COVID-19 calls for states to quickly solve issues regarding their detention system to avoid turning detention centers to epicenters of the outbreak.

Pre-trial detainees constitute around 50% to 90% of total prison population of most countries in the continent. Prison systems suffer from many systemic problems that will worsen with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Living conditions in prisons are dire and mostly unsanitary. Tuberculosis is present in many detention centers as well as HIV/AIDS. Medicines are a scarce resource and access to doctors or nurses is difficult.

There are already hundreds of COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa prisons. In Cameroon, Guinea or South Africa, the detention centers are quickly becoming epicenters of the pandemic.

Number of COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan African Prisons


As of 25 June 2020, we count at least 29 deaths in prisons linked to COVID-19. However, some governments are withholding information about the number of cases and deaths in prisons linked to COVID-19. 

“It will spread like a fire. As soon as one person catches the virus, we will all catch it within hours.”

A prisoner in Goma's Munzenze prison, DRC

Stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons

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Cameroon, an endless wait for a trial

Kondengui Prison, the capital’s main prison was built to house 1,500 detainees. However, prior to the government’s order to release some prisoners, there were over 6,000 detainees held in the prison.

Pre-trial detainees make up to 58% of the prison population in Cameroon. Many detainees currently held in pre-trial detention in relation to the separatist anglophone crisis won’t benefit from the government’s measures. Others, like Ivo Fomusoh and two of his friends, who were sentenced to 10 years for sharing an SMS joke, will also remain in prison.   

Poor access to health care also characterizes detainees’ dire living conditions. There is only one doctor per 1,335 prisoners. Inmates are malnourished and at least 15% of them are sick with tuberculosis. The situation is more or less the same in other prisons in Cameroon. The prison of Maroua, in the Far North Region – which has an occupancy rate of over 230% – has registered many deaths in custody due to the harsh conditions of detention.

Chad, unlivable conditions

Prisons in Chad have a 232% over capacity. The hygiene conditions and health care system are extremely poor. Prisoners die daily from multiple diseases including tuberculosis and STDs. Infirmaries are often used as cells when the prison is extremely crowded or when there are no medical supplies available. People sleep in poorly ventilated cells mostly on the ground next to each other. This becomes unbearable during the months of March through May, when temperatures can go as high as 45 degrees Celsius.

Benin, little access to failing healthcare system

Over 94% of prisoners in the 11 functional prisons in Benin declare not using their right to access health care. The reasons given are often the lack of access, the little number of available medical staff, shortage of medicines or expired medicines being given to inmates. There is allegedly a parallel economy for those wealthy enough to access healthcare. Underlying health conditions are untreated. However, a lot has been improved since 2015 even if the measures taken are still insufficient.

Benin’s prisons are overcrowded. The prison density is over 151%. On the over 8,500 inmates, more than 75% are pre-trial or remand detainees. On 6 May, the authorities freed over 400 prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

Madagascar, delayed trials for children and women

In Madagascar, the excessive use of pre-trial detention disproportionately affects the poor and marginalized of society. People—including children—accused of petty crimes are forced to stay in overcrowded and unhygienic prisons. They do not have access to appropriate food, healthcare, nor to a lawyer.

In most prisons, there are more people awaiting trial than have been sentenced, and the broken justice system can delay trials for years. In several prisons visited by Amnesty International, 100% of the children detained were awaiting trial, the majority of them were accused of petty, non-violent offences which do not justify imprisonment, such as the theft of a phone, or fish. Across the country, 80% of children and 70% of women are pre-trial detainees.

As a result, prisons nation-wide hold nearly three times their capacity. In June 2019, there were 28,045 people detained in prisons in Madagascar which have a total national capacity of 10,360. The conditions of detention are inhumane: detainees, including children, are often forced to sleep on concrete floors, without any mattresses or sheets, crammed into big dark cells with little ventilation.

Punished for being poor

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Mozambique, refugees and asylum seekers should also be free

On 6 April 2020, the Mozambican Parliament approved an amnesty law, which will benefit around 5,300 detainees condemned for crimes punishable by imprisonment of up to one year, with or without a fine. The amnesty law aims at reducing the prison population and mitigating the risk of the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

However, some refugees and asylum seekers from DRC and Ethiopia are still arbitrarily detained in Pemba city, Cabo Delgado, in the northern Mozambique. They have been in pre-trial detention for more than 15 months and they have not been brought before a court yet. They have not even been charged of any crimes or offences yet and won’t benefit from the amnesty law.

The 16 refugees and asylum seekers have been held in appalling conditions, without access to running water, soap, hand sanitizer and adequate food. In these conditions, they are more vulnerable to some diseases, including COVID-19.

The country’s prisons are overcrowded. Based on the official capacity, they host over two times more people than they should.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), prisoners are living in “dying houses”

Detainees are dying daily in the DRC’s jails due to the dire living conditions. According to Prison-Insider, between January and February 2020 more than 60 prisoners in Makala prison died of hunger. In addition, at least four inmates died in the Matadi detention center between 9 and 13 April.

The main prisons in the country host at least four to six times their official capacity with 73% of detainees in remand or pre-trial detention.

The authorities took measures to reduce the prison population by adjusting sentences; resulting in the release of 1,200 prisoners and more releases to come. Judges were also instructed to only resort to detention when there is no other alternative. However, other preventive measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in prisons may be detrimental to detainees: more than 80% of them depend on their loved ones and local associations for food to survive but will no longer be receiving meals brought by their relatives.

For many experts, the DRC main prisons are dying houses. Prisoners go days without eating. Lack of medicines is a common issue. Squalid living conditions, tuberculosis, lack of space in cells, female prisoners using shreds of foam mattresses during their period, no funds to care for detainees, the large systemic problems in the detention system will only get worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are already over 110 confirmed cases in Ndolo military prison in Kinshasa.

Eritrea, shipping containers as cells

The state of the prison system in the country is one of the most well-guarded secret. There is very little known about the detention centers and those living in them. Eritrean authorities are known to often use incommunicado detention as well as shipping containers to hold detainees. Arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances are continuous issues. Many families of those jailed are desperate for information.

Amnesty International has documented poor prison conditions in the country, in some cases amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

In Eritrea prisons, there are hundreds of prisoners of conscience. Eleven politicians and 17 journalists, who were arbitrarily arrested in 2001 after criticizing President Isaias Afwerki’s government, are still waiting for a fair trial or to be set free.

Eritrea’s forgotten prisons exposed

Senegal, sleeping head-to-feet is the norm

2,000 prisoners were released as part of the preventive measures taken against the pandemic of COVID-19. The country had 11,547 jailed people in 37 prisons with a total capacity of 4,224 detainees.

However, for the remaining inmates, the daily life in prison still put them at risk. There are reportedly less than 5 doctors in the medical team of the Senegalese prison administration. Hygiene remains very poor with little access to bathrooms. Cells which are designed to house 40 prisoners often contain two to three times that number. Most of the detainees sleep on the ground head-to-feet in an arrangement they call “paketasse”. In some cases, they are obliged to take turns in order to sleep.

Niger, isolated from the world

As part of the government’s preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19, prisoners will not receive any visit for the next three months. Recent waves of arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and activists have resulted in them languishing in prisons without any means to contact their family and lawyers. The measure deprives most detainees from receiving either food or other supplies from outside.

Officially, prison density in Niger is 93%. However, our contacts in prison are saying that the cells are overcrowded.” Over 53% of the prisoners are in pre-trial detention. Another measure taken by the authorities freed over 1,500 inmates including notorious opposition figure Hama Amadou who has been in jail for alleged baby smuggling. Sadly, many human rights defenders and activists still remain in prison and they will be completely isolated for at least the next three months.

Tanzania, continuous efforts to decongest prisons

Since 2015, at least 9,000 inmates have been pardoned. The efforts made by authorities to decongest prisons have been continuous. Recent measures include the instruction to judges to use detention as a last resort. The results are tangible. The occupancy level of prisons is now less than 115%. Twenty years ago, the detention centers were housing two to three times more inmates than their official capacity.

However, President John Magufuli’s comments on how inmates should be treated are concerning. Magufuli, who is often criticized for his authoritarian leadership style which includes crackdowns on freedoms, said that prisoners should be made to work day and night for free. He also said that “it is a shame for the country to continue to feed prisoners. All the prisons have fields, inmates must cultivate them”.

In addition, the government is trying to silence its critics by keeping them behind bars. Human rights lawyer Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani have been in detention since 20 December 2019. They are being held on spurious charges of leading organized crime, possession of a computer program designed for the purpose of committing an offence, and money laundering. They are being held under very poor prison conditions. Fears for their health are high in the context of COVID-19 particularly because of the overcrowding, the food restrictions and inadequate water and sanitation.

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Protect detainees in Sub-Saharan Africa against COVID-19