- Maggots usually digest the bodies of the dead. In Benin’s cramped and decaying prison of Abomey they infest the flesh of the living.
The skin of many prisoners in Abomey is ragged due to the extraction of fly larvae, a scourge that is symptomatic of the deplorable conditions of one of Benin’s oldest prisons. Many inmates also suffer from tuberculosis, scabies, parasites, lung infections or other illnesses.
The civilian prison of Abomey, located in southern Benin, was built in 1904 to house a maximum of 150 prisoners. Now more than 1,000 inmates are crammed into small, fetid cells that lack proper ventilation or sanitation, according to Dominique Sounou, executive director of the Dispensary of Prisoners and Indigents (DAPI), a local non-governmental organisation that looks after the health of the inmates at Abomey.
“In my cell, we organize ourselves in a different way to sleep. While one group sleeps sitting down, the rest are standing. After three hours we change. Those who were sitting wake up and those who were standing take their place,” said prisoner Joseph A., an assistant leader of the inmates.
Abomey prison is like many others across West Africa: old, overcrowded and neglected. Care of prisoners comes far down on the list of priorities even for governments that have a relatively good human rights record, such as that of Benin, human rights workers say.
What makes matters worse, they say, is that most of the inmates in these prisons have not even been sentenced.
Of the 9,000 prisoners in Benin’s eight prisons, for example, only 10 percent have been tried and sentenced, according to DAPI figures.
Detainees can spend months, sometimes years, waiting to go to trial because of the large backlog of court cases within a justice system that is overburdened and inefficient, human rights workers say.
Although Benin is considered to have one of the more sophisticated and respected judiciaries in West Africa, it still lags far behind more developed nations in terms of expediency and fairness, according to rights workers.
Benin is a poor country that largely depends on cotton exports for revenue. Each year, the government budgets about US $1.4 million for Benin’s eight prisons, or about US $175,000 for each facility, according to DAPI. As a comparison, in the United States, that amount, US $175,000, would be budgeted for the care of about nine prisoners alone per year, according to figures from the US Department of Justice.
Recently, it seemed as though the Abomey prison was about to be rehabilitated with the funds the government had set aside for that purpose for the past three years. The walls of the prison’s administrative buildings were repaired and painted.
But that was it.
Abomey now has a decent façade but inside it is rotting.
Putrid water flows through the prison like a stream from the area where prisoners wash themselves - when there is water. Latrines are full and inmates empty them by hand.
Some prisoners walk around nude, lacking any clothes to wear. Some, if they do have clothes, prefer to put them aside to keep them in good shape for the day that they appear before a judge.
“In this house of detention, our day is made up of multiple problems,” said inmate Jean K., a leader of the prisoners. "There is overcrowding, we sleep on the ground, arranged like corpses in the drawers of a morgue.
“In addition to the odors that must be endured, it is necessary to continuously battle against the bugs. We live in unhealthy conditions unfit for a human being. Not only that but we only get one food ration daily that is very meager and poor.”
The prisoners can go for more than one year without eating meat or vegetables. From November to February, the prisoners are rationed one cup of water per day because of drought. The prison is located on a hill and there is insufficient water pressure.
“During this period, we suffer bitterly and the manager is very devoted to our cause. He goes from house to house to find water for us,” said Jean K.
“In normal times it is the detainees who look for water for the gendarmes. But during the period of water shortages, the roles change,” said prison manager Gilbert Avokandoto. “During this period, a week can go by without having a single drop of water in the faucets. The prisoners pass for long periods without washing,”
He said the best solution would be to move the prison.
The government has constructed a new detention facility at Akpo Missrete in the southeast. When it is ready, prisoners from Cotonou, Porto-Novo and Ouidah will be transferred there.
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