There is a chalkboard the size of a ping-pong table affixed to the wall. On it is the daily tally of prisoners. Today there are 4113. The prison administrator – we started calling him the “Governor” – keeps track of the inmates moves. This one is in hospital, that one is being transferred another set free.
Of those 4113 prisoners there are murderers, petty thieves, car jackers and burglars. At least 20 of them mostly men but reportedly four women (in Yaounde alone) are imprisoned just for being gay – a crime against nature in Cameroon.
It is hot. Albert and I are invited to sit on two wooden chairs, our backs to the chalkboard. I look at Albert in his full priest regalia. My God, if I am hot he must be boiling under all that black and the high crisp collar. Our activist friends (who I will call Antoine and Robert – I cannot use their real names) sit in two filthy plush recliners which have no feet. The Governor sits behind a hulking metal desk. He takes our passports, our prison tickets and eyeballs us. He pulls out a pad of paper and begins taking down our information. The pad is brand new, it isn’t some official register, it occurs to me this is all a show. They don’t really keep records here. Bribes are normal, the inmates are left to their own. For chrissakes the former prime minister is in the prison – but he gets to “rent” a “luxury” apartment.
The Governor continues to scratch out our details with a pen he plucked from his bright green “Chicken Little” branded pencil holder.
There are hoops to jump through to get inside Yaounde prison on the outskirts of Yaounde, Cameroon. By the time we were sitting in front of the Governor we had been working on the visit for two days. First you need “tickets” issued by the department of justice, then you have to go to a snack and soda shack across the road from the prison itself to wait and pay the guard (who comes to the tin-roofed shop) a bribe to be let in. The guard is the shop owner’s sister. I wonder what his cut is?
It is recommended we buy food for the prisoners we are going to meet. In prison they have to pay for their own food. We buy bags of tapioca and cane sugar. They will mix it together in water to eat.
cane sugar and tapioca is a meal for a prisoner – held here by an activist
We are collected by a female guard dressed in police gear which looks more like a military uniform. Drab green, brown epaulettes and a red beret (this is the same get up the Governor is wearing except his hat is that of a general and exaggerated, like it was a gift from a visiting Gaddafi). I assume the uniform is standard issue; the Louis Vuitton cross-body handbag she is wearing probably isn’t.
It is Sunday – visiting day – so the entrance gate is crowded. Families wait in a bleacher area – one that you would see at a small town little league game only made of wood – to wait. We are shuffled to the front and make our way inside. As I cross the threshold I have to stop to allow a man with a wheelbarrow full of shit and leaves pass through.
Finally the prisoners we requested are brought in. There are six in all. Five men and one woman. We all shake hands and introduce ourselves. I thought we would get to speak with them in private – or at least not in the Governor’s office. But we are there along with another prison official who just joined us. He is the PR guy. He is there to listen and do damage control and spin if needs be.
Of the six two have been “condemned”. This is their word, condemned, their trials had taken place and sentences handed down. One man is to serve two years, the woman is in for five. The others – those not condemned still sit in prison. One has been in Yaounde for 7 months, one for 4 months the other for 16 months. None has been tried and all are being held (counter to the Cameroonian constitution) without official charges. They are in prison for “suspected homosexuality”.
They have all been abused by prisoners and authorities alike. (The woman whispered the part about abuse by the guards since the Governor was listening), there is no healthcare (a doctor gives out “tablets” aspirin and if you are referred to the prison hospital as an inmate you have to pay your own way). There are no beds (the inmates must buy them but we are told the prison doesn’t sell them) the new water (potable) line they want to dig is caught up in Cameroonian Government Red Tape.
There is a lot more to this story. But, I just got off a four hour bus ride so there will be more later. But I would like to leave you with this. In 2012, the US Embassy in conjunction with the Toys for Tots program made a holiday visit to Yaounde prison to deliver presents to kids whose moms are locked up. I wonder if one of those kids’ moms is serving jail time for being suspected of being a lesbian?
Above photo is on the US Embassy page under this title: “US Embassy Employees Bring Holiday Cheer to Yaounde Prison”
Copyright 2014 – Andy Kopsa