‘Remember our brothers and sisters in prison, because in life even the bad guys need love.’ As singer Coco de Kofi ends his song, the crowd outside Togo’s main prison cheers. It gathered in the capital Lomé on 11 February to launch the West African country’s annual Week of the Detainee. Among attendees sat the prisoners named in Kofi’s song, whose cheers were weighted with bitter understanding.
The Week of the Detainee, now in its fourth year, is a unique attempt to address the acute numbers of people held in pre-trial detention and the horrific conditions within Togo’s penal system. Overcrowding, sickness and death are common across the country’s 12 institutions. Lomé Prison, built to hold 650 prisoners, houses some 2,070 inmates. They stand shoulder to shoulder in filthy cells where they take turns to sleep. One meal a day is all their nourishment. Medical staff and supplies are extremely limited. Between January and May 2012 alone, 18 prisoners died.
But most shocking is that around 70 per cent of the prison population have never brought their case before a judge, and some have waited for years. Often detainees have been accused of petty crimes – stealing a chicken or failure to payback a micro-finance loan. In many cases, they are innocent.
Kofi was one such detainee. He languished in Lomé prison for three and a half years before charity Togo YMCA found him. Aged 18, an agent invited him to perform in Germany. But the passport he provided was fake and Kofi was detained. The YMCA helped release Kofi, who now campaigns for change. ‘I support the Week of the Detainee to touch the hearts of authorities, volunteers and the public’s conscience to make their lives better,’ he says.
Often detainees have been accused of petty crimes – stealing a chicken or failure to payback a micro-finance loan. In many cases, they are innocent
The week was created by YMCA in 2010 to lift detainees’ spirits and draw public attention to the cause. Civil society organizations fund and organize games, competitions, dancing and singing, among other activities. The media is invited to enter prisons and broadcast events to the nation. Detainees deliver speeches to an audience of decision-makers and plead for improvements. Legal and medical experts give free advice to detainees. And the event is backed by the Togolese Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Former YMCA social worker and current head of social services at Lomé prison Hermann Gomina believes that, with ministerial backing, the event can prompt change. ‘The justice minister is aware of the problems in the prisons,’ says Gomina. ‘With him on board, things could go better.’
This year, justice minister Kofi Esaw spoke at the launch event. After listening to detainees’ speeches, he promised action. ‘I understand your pleas and I share your concerns,’ he said. ‘I know there are things that could be done immediately, and we will do those immediately.’ His words provoked a mixed reception. Basil, a detainee held without trial for eight years, was encouraged. ‘I hope the minister’s promises will come true,’ he says. ‘I feel he is engaged [with our needs] and with him change is possible.’
In 2011, the MOJ announced during the event that 70 prisoners nearing the end of their sentences would be released. They were, but other promises have not been upheld. Fatai, another detainee, says: ‘Since the outset of the Week of the Detainee, those in authority have made speeches and promises they never realize. After this week, life at Lomé prison will continue to be problematic, with deplorable detention conditions. The week won’t change anything of miserable prison life.’
The week’s co-founder, Togo YMCA national project co-ordinator Lambert Daisher, shares Fatai’s concerns. ‘I’m not convinced the government is committed to changing things in the prisons,’ he says. Daisher notes the government allocates only 0.6 per cent of its budget is to the MOJ. ‘What can anyone do with that?’ he asks.
Daisher insists the event is valuable even if it doesn’t provoke long-term change. ‘In the prisons there are no activities to distract detainees,’ he says. ‘The week gives an opportunity for them to realize their value, talents and creative spirit.’ He says the football tournament is particularly important. This year the detainees won against four non-detainee teams. ‘Their joy at winning the cup was immense,’ says Daisher. Without the week, he says the public would not care. ‘What has changed over the years is now a small part of the population understands better the conditions in detention, which helps,’ he says.
International agencies have tried to address the situation in Togo. Between 2005 and 2010 the European Union (EU) funded a national programme of justice modernization, to align the country with international standards. It replaced the military personnel who staffed prisons with civilian workers. But other aims, such as training more lawyers and improving MOJ buildings, failed to have profound impact.
British charity Y Care International (YCI) has worked with Togo YMCA since 2008 to support detainees. It funded the creation of four legal clubs – effectively paralegal services – within four prisons. The clubs address the fact that lack of education is one of the primary causes of high detainee numbers. Detainees often don’t know they should request a lawyer, or cannot write to one because they are illiterate. By training detainees about their rights and the judicial system, between 2009 and 2012 YCI helped free 1,070 detainees across the country. The organization restarted the programme last year and will fund the work with EU backing until 2016.
YCI Africa programme manager Harriet Knox says the government recognises the power of the clubs and wants them replicated across Togo. But she says the policy exists only on paper: ‘It has not been adopted or resourced.’ Knox says the Week of the Detainee is worthwhile, but limited. ‘People make promises, but what’s important is what happens afterwards,’ she says.
The legal clubs system was reinforced in 2012 by a team of researchers from the Viennese Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights. Their Atlas of Torture project responded to recommendations made by a UN special reporter in 2007. They established five legal clubs and freed 533 detainees over six months. Researcher Tiphanie Crittin suggests the project’s work in other countries has shown strengthening monitoring bodies can help. In Paraguay, it trained 20 lawyers to perform monitoring roles in prisons, who increased public exposure of heavy sentencing and corruption. ‘It’s often the case people don’t care about prisoners because they have no idea what’s going on,’ says Crittin.
Prison overcrowding and high pre-trial detention levels are common across Africa. International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) research suggests occupancy levels are more than twice capacity in nine countries. ICPS former director Rob Allen says the rate of detainees has decreased in Kenya following the government’s introduction of community service orders in 1998. He suggests this is one solution, but is rare in West Africa. ‘Even in Nigeria, they have little in the way of alternatives to prison,’ says Allen.
‘After this week, life at Lomé prison will continue to be problematic, with deplorable detention conditions. The week won’t change anything of miserable prison life’
Shortage of lawyers is another major cause of pre-trial detention. African Prisons Project founder and director general Alexander McLean says the costs of legal training prevents many entering the profession. Foreign aid can also hinder governments’ ability to afford judges’ wages. ‘In 2010 in Sierra Leone judges were paid in US dollars and their salaries were so high it was often difficult for the government to sustain them once donor funding was removed,’ he says.
McLean says countries are becoming more transparent about prison conditions. One prison in South Sudan has published a photobook documenting inmates’ shocking living conditions. ‘That’s the prison service saying they’re not happy with the way things are,’ he says.
In Togo, the Week of the Detainee ended with mass. Kofi’s prayer came with a warning. ‘Don’t forget our brothers and sisters in prison.’ He sang. ‘Today it’s them, but tomorrow you never know.’