The Democratic Republic of Congo’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons are at grave risk of COVID-19 outbreaks that threaten the health and lives of detainees, guards, and the broader population, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
Since March 21, 2020, magistrates have released just over 2,000 pretrial detainees and prisoners detained for low-level offenses to reduce the country’s prison populations, according to the United Nations peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. However, many more of the estimated 71 percent of detainees who have not been convicted of any crime or are awaiting trial should urgently be released, and those newly arrested for nonviolent or minor offenses should not be detained.
“Congo’s government needs to take bolder steps to prevent a major crisis in overcrowded prisons and jails,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It has inherited a prison system that has been neglected for decades and, with Covid-19 at the prison gates, the clock is ticking before a potential crisis unfolds.”
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The Congolese government should quickly provide allocated funds to prisons and ensure that they provide inmates adequate food and medical care. The authorities should improve basic hygiene and sanitation, allow detainees’ families to safely deliver much-needed food parcels, and ensure access to legal counsel.
Congo’s main prisons are at 432 percent of capacity, according to MONUSCO, making them some of the most overcrowded in the world. Prisons in the eastern cities of Goma and Uvira are over 600 percent capacity, while Kinshasa’s central prison, known as Makala, is at 461 percent, with hundreds of inmates crammed in together and no beds.
“In the wing I was at until a few days ago, there were at least 850 of us in a space with a capacity of 100 people,” a detainee told Human Rights Watch. “No one can even find a meter of space to sleep, and the situation is worse in some of the other wings. If the coronavirus reaches Makala, there will be no one left.”
Although internationally recommended to prevent transmission of Covid-19, it is not feasible in Congo’s prisons to impose “social distancing” – allowing two meters of separation at all times among detainees and staff, including during meals and within cells. This reinforces the need for the authorities to immediately reduce prison populations.
People in pretrial detention for low-level or nonviolent offenses should be released immediately. Older people, pregnant women and girls, people with disabilities, and people with compromised immunity or chronic conditions that place them at greater risk of Covid-19 complications, such as heart and lung disease, diabetes, or HIV, should also be prioritized for release, Human Rights Watch said.
It is critical to keep transfers from police custody to prisons to a minimum, Human Rights Watch said. Dozens of new detainees are brought in weekly according to UN sources and prisoners. “They [new detainees] arrive in groups and mix among us,” a Makala detainee said. “But we have no idea whether they have been tested – I don’t think they have.” It is not clear whether new detainees are being screened for fever and other symptoms. Clean isolation units that are not punitive should be set up for suspected Covid-19 cases.
On April 2, the justice minister banned deliveries of outside parcels and meals from relatives, the only source of food for most detainees, to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 entering the facilities. Detainees from several Congolese prisons and jails said that the measure has not been enforced since most prison directors recognize the necessity of this support.
In Kinshasa, on April 4, dozens of people camped outside Makala in protest when prison officials attempted to enforce the ban, some throwing rocks at the prison guards, detainees said. “Luckily, they have backtracked on enforcing the ban,” said one detainee. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be dying of the coronavirus but of hunger.”
Covid-19 is primarily transmitted through close and prolonged contact between people and there is very limited evidence that food is a source of transmission. Bans on outside food and meals do not appear to serve the legitimate end of protecting prisoners’ health. While there are some risks that containers could be contaminated with the disease, this could easily be mitigated by disinfecting the parcels according to best practices.
Malnutrition and related illness have long resulted in inmate deaths in Congo’s prisons and jails. At best, detainees get one meal a day, in part because food portions are budgeted according to prisons’ capacity rather than their real populations. Between April 9 and 13, five inmates reportedly died “because of lack of food” in Matadi jail, in the southwest.
In the western town of Mbandaka, the prison rarely supplies food: “Catholic nuns come twice a week and feed us with beans and cassava balls,” a detainee said. “We don’t know which days the prison will serve food, we eat thanks to what’s coming from the outside.”
Since January, prison administrations across the country have had to buy food and essential supplies on credit because government funds have not been received. At least 40 inmates died of hunger in Makala in January and another 20 in February, according to MONUSCO. The prison’s coffers had been empty for several months and prisoners were not fed.
On April 2, the justice minister banned lawyers from visiting their clients. The government should find safe alternatives to ensure that the rights of all detainees are protected amid restrictions due to the Covid-19 crisis.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on March 25, urged governments to reduce prison populations, stating that “Measures taken amid a health crisis should not undermine the fundamental rights of detained people, including their rights to adequate food and water. Safeguards against ill-treatment of people in custody, including access to a lawyer and to doctors, should also be fully respected.”
The authorities have erected handwashing stations in some detention centers across Congo, but accounts from detainees suggest that access to water and clean sanitation remains a major issue. “There is no water at all here – our families bring us potable water,” said a detainee from Mbandaka prison. “There is no handwashing station here and the toilets are filthy. We’re not just at risk of coronavirus contamination, we also fear other diseases, like cholera.”
In Munzenze prison, in Goma, a prisoner said the number of handwashing stations did not match the needs. In Makala, water is scarce as well. “In my wing, most taps are dry, only one gives us water but it works two to three hours a day,” one detainee said. “Imagine the number of people fighting to get a bit of it. We’re told to observe distancing rules these days, but can this be possible in such conditions?”
“The Congolese government has an international obligation to protect and medically treat the inmates who remain in detention,” Mudge said. “It should give prisons the means to prevent and respond to Covid-19 to protect inmates and staff while allowing detainees safe access to family and legal counsel.”