Alert: Urgent call to lift Covid-19 related restrictions in places of detention

Cameroon: Unsanitary conditions of detention lead to cholera outbreak in prison

Geneva, Buea – 19 April 2022

At least six people are reported to have died from cholera in a Cameroonian prison. This is due to unsanitary conditions of detention, with reduced access to hygiene and overcrowded infrastructures. The outbreak of this new epidemy in prisons amid an ongoing Covid-19 crisis reveals the failure of the government to decrease the prison population, ameliorate detainees living conditions and preserve their fundamental rights.

On 25 March 2022, the Cameroonian Minister of Public Health announced an outbreak of cholera at the Douala New Bell Central Prison in Douala. The government reported 300 cases and 29 deaths between 16 and 22 March in the country. Since then, six new deaths have officially been registered in New Bell Prison. One of the detainees disputes this figure: "I have seen at least 89 people die in the prison due to cholera and several others hospitalized".

An unsanitary environment facilitated the spread of the disease

The resurgence of cholera comes at a time when the country is already facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Cholera is defined by the World Health Organization as an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It thrives in unsanitary environments.

Douala New Bell Prison, built in 1902 with a capacity of 800 inmates, is severely overcrowded. It is estimated to host at least 5,000 people, a number that increases daily due to the arrival of new pre-trial detainees. Sanitation facilities, such as toilets, water points and other infrastructures, are outdated and almost inaccessible. Testimonies of detainees point to the poor quality of food, the absence of running water and the lack of drinking water. These factors make New Bell Prison a favourable environment for the spread of contagious diseases, as is the case for a lot of Cameroonian prisons. Restrictive measures, such as regular hand washing, disinfection of premises and other hygiene rules that can help limit the spread of these diseases cannot be followed with such a high concentration of people and lack of resources.

Solutions may include the release of prisoners, better hygiene and more monitoring

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) had already alerted the Cameroonian government at the early stage of the Covid19 crisis in March 2020 on the risk of other epidemic outbreak in its overcrowded prisons.

As recommended two years ago, the only urgent and efficient way to improve the daily life, health and access to hygiene of prisoners in this context is to decrease the prison population. With an occupancy rate of 125.2% and 66.8% person in pre-trial detention, the country should privilege the release of human rights defenders such as Mancho Bibixy Tse, a local radio journalist and history teacher arbitrary arrested and sentenced him to 15 years in 2017 by the Yaoundé Military Court in prison for promoting Anglophone rights.

If urgent and appropriate measures are not taken, it is expected that the other prisons across the country will also be affected leading to more casualties. The OMCT and CHRDA call on the Cameroonian government to:

  • Prioritize the release of prisoners accused of minor offences and those arrested for their human rights and political engagements to lessen prison overcrowding,;
  • Improve the quality of food for prisoners so that they have access to a healthy and balanced diet on a daily basis;
  • Make drinking water accessible by increasing the number of supply points;
  • Multiply the number of toilets and sinks to allow prisoners to take proper showers and relieve themselves. Unsanitary toilets and sinks are one of the main causes of diseases with a high potential for proliferation, such as cholera or Covid-19;
  • Grant civil society organisations full access to places of detention so that they can provide urgent direct assistance, medical, psychosocial and legal support to prisoners during this time of health crisis.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) is the largest global NGO group actively standing up to torture and protecting human rights defenders worldwide. It has more than 200 members in 90 countries. Its international Secretariat is based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) is an independent, non-governmental, apolitical and non-profit making organization created in 2005, dedicated to the protection and advancement of human rights and the promotion of democracy as a political culture in Africa. CHRDA is based in Buea in the Southwest region of Cameroon.

For more information, please contact :

CHRDA: Felix Agbor Nkongho, President

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