With ninety-one known cases of COVID-19 and two deaths as of March 28, Cameroon is the Central African country that is the most affected by COVID-19. As restrictions are put in place to slow the spread of the virus, one area of Cameroonian society coming under greater scrutiny is its prison system. Across the country, 31,000 Cameroonians are imprisoned, overseen by 4,600 prison employees.
Enforcing social distancing is difficult under prison conditions, and Cameroon’s continued incarceration of new prisoners risks exposing prison populations to the deadly pandemic. Medical facilities and equipment are sorely lacking in Cameroonian prisons. On average, these prisons have only one doctor per 1,383 detainees.
Human rights advocates are urging the government to empty the prisons before an outbreak occurs in the country’s crowded prisons. A group of Cameroonian lawyers sent a letter to the Minister of Justice, Laurent Esso, on Thursday, March 26, to make their demands known publicly.
Why It Matters
Releasing prisoners may seem to be an extraordinary step to prevent the spread of a viral pandemic, but in fact the concept of releasing non-violent offenders has long been the position of prison abolitionists and other activists seeking criminal justice reform. Punitive detention facilities rarely rehabilitate inmates, leaving them to reoffend once they are released. Cameroon’s prison population has steadily grown over the past decade, which calls into question the efficacy of the country’s criminal justice system. Whether the Minister of Justice accedes to these demands or not, the Cameroonian prison system needs an overhaul.