By Madi Jobarteh
I have no words to express my shock and anger at what I saw today at Mile 2 and Jeshwang prisons when I visited them as part of the Prison Reform Committee. I wish to report that the Committee has concluded its task with a visit to the prisons so that we could see for ourselves the living conditions and the overall environment in Gambia’s prisons. Indeed, the Ministry of Interior and the Prisons leadership were extremely cooperative in facilitating the work of the committee.
The conditions I saw in our prisons is an indictment of the Gambia Government, from the PPP Government to the APRC Government to the Barrow Government. They bear the greatest responsibility for the subhuman conditions in which fellow citizens live. Seeing the cells and toilets and cooking places and overall environment of these prison compounds I can testify here that they are derelict. The absolute neglect and poor facilities and resources of our prisons are so scandalous that even dogs and donkeys should not be allowed to live in these concentration camps!
The stench in the cells and living halls and infested with bed bugs and mosquitoes made my heart to cry with guilt and pain. These prisons are characterised by grossly inadequate toilet facilities while ventilation and lighting in the cells are extremely poor with damp floors and worn-out mattresses. I have seen in the Remand Wing and other living halls in both Mile and Jeshwang where inmates sleep on empty wooden planks placed across two brick pillars while other inmates also sleep under those planks on damp floors. The Remand Wing at Mile 2 is so crowded that inmates practically arrange themselves like sardines when they have to sleep.
As if that is not enough, I have seen people who have been in remand for years. I have seen young boys of 19 years who have spent months in remand without going to court. They were arrested for only possession of cannabis for personal use. I have seen young boys of 15 and 16 placed in remand in Jeshwang because they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when they were picked up by the Anti-Crime Unit. I have seen people in remand being locked inside their cells for 24 hours with only a single 20-litre gallon of water. Why? A person in remand is not a convict, so why confine him to such dehumanization?
One can see the overall compound is unkempt while space in the cells are hopelessly small and poor. Beds are mere concrete platforms with very smelly mattresses lined up from end to end. Windows have no covers other than iron bars. Mosquito nets are limited and where they are available they are patched all over. Not only are the physical structures and the environment of the prisons deplorable, but the food that is provided to our prisoners is extremely poor, inadequate and cooked in very unhygienic conditions. When you look at the bodies of these men and women there is no doubt that they are living on poor diet!
While I was appalled at the extremely subhuman conditions in the prisons I was shocked beyond understanding when I visited the offices and living quarters of our prison staffs also. The level of dilapidation, neglect and poverty of their offices and living quarters is a direct abuse of these officers. I want to tell all Gambians that our prison officers live and work in extremely terrible conditions. I will rather stay unemployed and beg on the streets than work and live in those conditions.
The conditions and the environment in Mile 2 and Jeshwang are akin to slavery and flout all international norms and standards for the rights of prisons as well as for the welfare of prison officers. Certainly, when prison officers are not happy it is clear that prisoners will also not be happy. Our prisons therefore do not only abuse the rights of prions but equally abuse the rights of prison officers. No doubt Mile 2 has been labelled as ‘Africa’s Hell on Earth’.
The Gambia Government must be held to account for the slave conditions in the prisons. It is sad that after 18 months in office even this new government has been doing very little to address prison conditions. Even though many top government officials including the vice president and some ministers and parliamentarians as well as senior public and security officers were themselves inmates in these prisons not long ago it is indeed shocking that there is no visible urgency to address Gambian prisons.
At the same time what are our law enforcement agencies, state prosecutors, judges and magistrates doing to address detention without trial? Why should a person stay for so long in remand? While many people are put before a court, yet it takes many months and years for a judgement to be made. Others are in remand and have never seen a court room after many months? Why? We cannot continue to give excuses when human lives and rights are at stake? While law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and magistrates are enjoying their peace and freedom in the comfort of their homes they must remember that other fellow citizens are languishing in terrible subhuman conditions.
Our prisons need urgent attention because the conditions there are dehumanizing and a clear violation of the rights and dignity of human beings. In the first place the very concept of prisons as a place of punishment must change. Human beings do not lose their humanity and dignity just because they are prisoners regardless of what crime they committed. A society that is compassionate must not treat its fellow citizens like beasts and salves.
The question therefore one has to ask is where have all the resources of the prisons gone to? In the prisons one can see incomplete buildings that have been under construction for years. Why? Why should the prisons be so neglected as to be a place of hell? Prisons are not cursed and condemned places and prisoners are not cursed and condemned souls. Yes, anyone who breaks the law or violate human rights must be held to account. Hence prisons offer us the opportunity to make people pay for the damage they caused. But this is why prisons must be made a correctional facility to rehabilitate individuals so that they reform before coming out. A prison must not be made a place of pain and suffering and dehumanization.
Having noted my displeasure and shock at our prisons, I must end by stating that it was also pleasing to realise that in many cells there are television and radio sets where inmates follow news and activities on the outside. Apparently, this is the only way out to feel ease since there are no other recreational facilities. I have also seen a skills training centre with facilities for tailoring, plumbing, electrical and computer training for inmates. I have also seen a library even though poorly equipped. The prisons need more of these facilities and tools. Above all I have seen highly dedicated prisons staffs who are bearing terrible inhuman conditions just to do their job.
For the Gambia Our Homeland