The main prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon is “overpopulated, filthy and rife with corruption and abuse”, according to an inmate who contacted FRANCE 24's The Observers from behind bars. This man secretly filmed, with the help of some of his inmates, the overcrowded cells and “revolting” conditions in which he and other prisoners are forced to live.

Several of them worked together to secretly document the conditions in “Kosovo”, the nickname for Units 8 and 9 of Yaoundé’s main prison. From behind bars, they sent videos (filmed on January 21 and 30, 2017) to FRANCE 24, asking to remain anonymous. For security reasons, we have given a fake name to our Observer, who has been an inmate there for close to a decade.

The footage was recorded in units that are, for the most part, occupied by inmates who have been convicted of aggravated theft. Most of these men are from low-income backgrounds and, within the prison, they are known as “ground-sleepers” because most don’t have the means to pay for a bed.

"It's like a concentration camp"

We really suffer here. We live in revolting conditions and we are denied even our most basic rights. “Kosovo” is like a concentration camp run by the Nazis. Life here is truly unbearable.

There are 2,800 people housed in this part of the prison. There are inmates here who are guilty of theft, armed robbery and rape, however, there are also many other people who only committed minor offences. Others are innocent. We are all mixed together.

On Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the inmates are fed beans and corn. On the other days of the week, the prisoners eat rice with a little bit of sauce. This screengrab was taken from a video filmed by our Observer.

The food here is disgusting. The only thing we eat is corn and beans or rice with a bit of sauce. It’s been like that every day of the year since I first came here. In the morning, a 10-litre bucket of food is delivered to each cell, which contains between 60 to 70 people. That translates to less than half a bowl per person.

There are only three toilets and one shower for the 1,300 detainees in Unit 8. The hygiene is worsened by the fact that, very often, we don’t have running water. Moreover, many of the inmates behave unhygienically and just do what they need to do anywhere they want.

"You have to pay to be allowed outside"

Some of the inmates build small campfires in the cells. Many others smoke cigarettes or marijuana. The air can get so smoky that it is hard to breathe; sometimes, I feel like I am suffocating. Every once in a while, I pay 100 francs [around 15 euro cents] to go into the main courtyard. Because you have to pay to be allowed outside!

Sometimes, my family sends me a bit of money. But I’ve been here for so long that most of my friends and family are no longer available to help me.

When you don’t have money here, all the doors seem to shut in your face. It becomes a struggle just to survive. The inmates without money can’t buy things on the black market and they have to make do with half a bowl of corn to get through the day.

Constant bribes to guards
Guards vary the amount of money they ask for as a bribe depending on the inmate’s social class. Photo sent to us by our Observer. 

Prisoners who are locked up for theft or illegal possession are punished by having their feet chained together for two weeks. However, the guards often ask for a bribe to take the chains off after the two weeks have passed. However, if a prisoner is unable to pay the fee, he might be stuck in chains for four or five years.

Mobile phones, alcohol and drugs: "If you have money, you can buy almost anything”

The guards vary the amount they ask for as a bribe depending on each inmate’s social class. The corrupt guards  recruit some prisoners as “spies” and get them to investigate other inmates and to determine how much each of them might be able to pay. The price seems to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

You can buy almost anything from the prison guards. When several of my fellow inmates and I decided to contact FRANCE 24 about our situation, we pooled our money together to buy a contraband cell phone. A security guard charged us 65,000 francs CFA [100 euros] for the phone as well as an extra 15,000 francs CFA [22 euros] to smuggle it in.

Screengrab from the video filmed by our Observer.

You can also buy marijuana. The small pouch that you see in the video costs 650 CFA francs [a euro]. The small bag of whiskey that you can see on the table sells for the same price inside the prison. But the prices are hugely inflated: outside the prison, you can buy the same amount of whiskey for a sixth of that price. In the prison, a cigarette sells for 150 CFA francs [20 euro cents]. Outside the prison, you might pay 25 CFA francs [4 euro cents].

"Some prisoners live in luxury"

Some prisoners here live in luxury. These are the VIPs, which include former ministers, representatives and government officials who are often imprisoned for misuse of public funds.

Only the rich and powerful are allowed to use the prison library. In some ways, it has been turned into an office for former ministers. It's a place reserved for the rich.

Other prisoners, who we nickname the “butlers”, do the bidding of these wealthy inmates. They go fetch them water when there’s been a water cut. They clean their rooms, make their beds, cook for them and act as their bodyguards. They are paid for their work. And then when they get out of prison they usually benefit from these connections to wealthy, powerful people.

The account given by our Observer is corroborated by a study in social geography carried out by Marie Morelle, an associate professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Morelle’s research was published in the French geographic revue, Annales de géographie, in 2013.

Yaoundé’s main prison was built in 1968 with a capacity of 1,000 prisoners. Today, our Observer estimates that around 5,000 prisoners are housed there. The last official count was 4,234 prisoners, reported by the Ministry of Justice in 2015.

FRANCE 24 made numerous efforts to contact the authorities at Yaoundé’s main prison, the national authorities responsible for the penal system and the Minister of Justice. For the time being, none of them have responded to requests. If they do get in touch, this page will be updated accordingly.

Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas