A wall of people, squeezed, crammed, walking around in circles and swaying, because this is the only movement they can perform. It is not a nightmare, nor the contrapasso of a circle of Dante’s Inferno. This is a real place where hundreds of men are forced to live: the prisons of Cameroon. Scabies, additional punishments, hunger, thirst, and years-long detentions for minor crimes. Generally, people get here for petty thefts such as that of an apple, a soap bar, or a couple of hens. It is the routine.
The Bafoussam prison’s area for the yard hour is 20 by 15 meters, and is shared by approximately 350 people including children, adults, and elderly people, without distinction. But this is not an exception, it is estimated that the prisons of this country are overcrowded by 394 %. If this is already upsetting enough for you, the life stories in this place will leave you breathless. There are no military men inside these structures. This space is a separate world, with rules and bosses who make people respect them according to a very precise hierarchy, dictated by the only law they know: that of the jungle. Each cell is 7 square meters and hosts about 50 convicts and there is a boss, an assistant, and a real mayor who decides the rules, such as the cost of each bed, for instance. The few lucky men who can afford paying, take the real beds, while everyone else sleeps on the floor.
Even food has a cost, and the prison provides nothing more but a dish of maze porridge once a day, leaving to the family the task of integrating the meal: when it lives too far away or is too poor, the prisoner can die of starvation. Considering that this is what occurs in most cases, the inmate has only two survival options: the first one is to submit to the will of the boss, becoming, thus, one of his “slaves”, whereas the second one is to sell the only thing he is in possess of, that is his body. Obviously, for this practice are preferred kids from 12 to 16 years who live together with the other prisoners. For this very reason, many prisoners had entered healthy and left not only traumatized, but also infected with the plague of Africa, that is with HIV.
Symbolic is the case of Foumbassau, a 15-year-old boy with a strong intellectual disability due to cerebral meningitis he had at the age of 3. He was used by a band of robbers precisely because of his small build and the fact that he could not oppose resistance, to enter inside a house through a small chink. Needless to say that, when the police arrived, he was the only one to be arrested. He spent more than two years in prison, while some volunteers of the association Giovanni XXIII tried to make the courts understand that his intellectual disability made him essentially innocent.
Another case is that of Christelle, 36, who had been arrested together with five other women, charged with having stolen a bag of rice. A year later, no one had checked the accusation or looked for witnesses yet, and the process was never convened. In this case intervened the community of Sant’Egidio. They contacted the accuser and agreed on a compensation of 20 euro, obtaining thus the release of the women. A slap in the face of human dignity, in a world where the West is discussing the best way to eradicate absolute poverty.
Most of the people inside the prison are there for petty theft for survival reasons, crimes that, in theory, should be punished less severely. The problem is that pending trials are from 3 to 5 years, and even if you merely steal a bag of flour because you are hungry, you are going to spend three years cloistered in this hell.
Translated by Ecaterina Severin