The next time you get into an argument, if someone tells you to 'go to hell,' let me know. I can give you directions.
New Bell Prison is the central prison in Douala, Cameroon's largest city. I visit along with Dupleix, one of the program managers and Olun, our technical advisor. We're working on a proposal about prisoner's rights, and have come along with Sister Jacky, a Cameroonian nun who has devoted more than 20 years to working with people in the prison system here. Having visited San Quentin prison in California once for a story I was writing, I remember how intimidating and scary it felt being there. New Bell is that and more, as it combines all the same disturbing aspects of a prison in the US or Europe with the poverty, corruption, and decay that permeates much of the developing world.
One thing I notice right away is that the prison is practically in the middle of town, maybe three long blocks from one of the main markets in Douala. New Bell was originally built by the colonial authorities, and was probably on the edge of the city at first, but rapid growth has swallowed it up, and now it sits surrounded by warehouses, homes, and storefronts. The prison was originally designed to keep 800 people locked up, but now holds somewhere between 3-4000, depending on who you ask. We've been told that of the people inside, more than half have yet to actually be convicted of a crime, but are simply awaiting trial, often for months on end.
Before we go inside, Sister Jacky tells us to keep anything valuable out of sight, and leave it in the car. I take out the single diamond earring I wear, hide my wallet and phone, and take off my watch, burying it in a bag in the backseat. Two guards with olive uniforms and large machine guns stand at the main entrance. We walk in to find three more guards sitting at a table in a dark room.
"Les pièces!" They yell at us. Your IDs. I hand over a laminated and stamped copy of my passport ID and visa pages- no way I would risk bringing something like that here. Another guard frisks us, and swings open a metal door held partially closed by a chain. We squeeze through, and we're inside.
Just on the other side of the door, across a small concrete walkway, there's a large fence with barbed wire spikes at the top surrounding a large courtyard. A ring of buildings surrounds the courtyard with warped tin roofs and crumbling walls. A few tiny windows run along the top of each building, filled with thick and rusted bars. One of the buildings looks to be missing part of its side, and the gaping hole in the internal wall is covered by a collection of ripped plastic sheeting and blue tarps.
At least 50 men lean against the other side of the fence- they wear dirty, torn t-shirts, gym shorts, or less- apparently there are no uniforms in the Cameroonian prison system. As soon as they see us, they start yelling.
"Le blanc! Le blanc! Ça va?" Hey, white man, what's up?
An overweight guard unlocks the gate, and we pass through. Sister Jacky goes first, the veteran, followed by Dupleix, me, and Olun. Immediately, I feel hands start grabbing at me, wrapping arms around my shoulder, 20 voices talking to me at once, all of whom seem to be asking something. Instinctively, I reach out and grab ahold of Dupleix's shoulder, a way of staying together in the midst of the mob. We make our way across the courtyard, the four of us surrounded by the group of prisoners.
"These men are called 'taxis,' "says Sister Jacky. "If you need to find someone inside, you pay them 100 francs, and they'll find the person for you."
At the edge of the courtyard we duck under a small partition, and find ourselves in a market. Stands are set up along the walkway that don't look much different from your typical Cameroonian open-air restaurants and shops. People are cooking pots of beans, sticks of manioc baton, and pots of okra and vegetable sauces. Sister Jacky tells us that these 'café's' were set up by the prisoners, who can buy a plate of food for 50 or 100 francs. Again, she explains.
"The prison provides food, but it's only boiled corn meal, with maybe six or seven beans. If they have money, the prisoners buy food for themselves."
Throughout my time in Africa, I've become accustomed to people staring at me- it's part of the reality of being a foreigner here, particularly a Caucasian foreigner. Inside the prison market/café though, I feel the stares much more than usual; the stares of bored and angry men. As we walk through I hear a few of them call after me.
"Père, père!" they yell. Father. Walking around in the company of nun, I guess I'm easily mistaken for a priest. We turn a corner, and duck into a small workshop. Three women sit clustered around large sewing machines, and are surrounded by crimson sweaters. They're making school uniforms for one of the local private schools. Sister Jacky explains that this allows the prisoners to earn a small amount of money for food.
On the way out, I notice a man laying prone on the concrete in the doorway. His eyes are red and cloudy and he's wearing a filthy light-blue sweatshirt.
"You're leaving him here?" Sister Jacky asks the other prisoners.
"Il est malade," one of them answers. He's sick.
"I'm going to the see the doctor now, and I'll tell him," she responds.
The doctor's office is on the other side of the courtyard. We make our way across, again being jostled and yelled at by the prisoners. I try to keep my face expressionless, responding as little as possible to the men on all sides.
"Tu es ici avec les noirs maintenant!" someone yells. You're here with the blacks now.
As we walk through, people come up to us, thrusting sheets of paper into our hands. I initially try to fend them off, but I see Sister Jacky taking them, so I accept one from one of the men. The sheets all have a similar format- the prisoner's name, date de condamnation (date of sentence), peine (sentence), amende (fine to pay), and the name of the sentencing judge. The crimes seem relatively minor- things like petty theft, although some list things like assault and worse. In many cases, the amende section has a number, perhaps 100,000 francs (about $220) or a time period, maybe 10 months. Sister Jacky explains that when a prisoner is sentenced, they're often given a fine, and if they're unable to pay it, it's converted into additional time to be served, something like 9,000 francs for every month.
We stop briefly at the doctor's office, where Sister Jacky tells him about the prisoner lying in the doorway across the courtyard. He nods, but doesn't seem like he's particularly interested. Just beside the doctor's office is another gate, which we pass through. This is the section for prisoners who have already been convicted. I can't exactly tell, but I think Dupleix says it may be some sort of isolation unit- there are only a handful of people in the section, and there are some vestiges of normality, with a television in the corner of one of the rooms. Two men sit on a low bench against the wall; a heavy chain with a padlock encircles their legs. A curtain parts, and I see something I'm not expecting, a white man. He's wearing a white t-shirt and ripped jean shorts, and has a several day-old beard. He looks haggard and weak. Sister Jacky seems to know him, and they talk for a moment. I can't make out their conversation exactly, as she moves away, I hear the last bit. "I'll contact the embassy," she says.
I remember hearing about foreigners are subject to local laws when they're visiting a country, but this is the first time I've seen it put into practice. I have to wonder what the man did, but unsurprisingly, he doesn't really seem to be in the mood to talk. I've been visiting New Bell for less than an hour, but looking around, I have a hard time imagining a worse place to be, particular as a foreigner. Perhaps he's in the isolation section as a means of protecting him from the other prisoners- I can imagine a blanc would be a pretty inviting target.
A guard opens another door, and we walk along the inside perimeter of the wall- looking up I see rows of barbed wire arcing inward, connected to what look like glass insulators- the wire must be electrified as well. We duck through a small door and find ourselves in a set of surprisingly nice buildings, freshly-painted and cream-colored.
"This is the juvenile section," Sister Jacky says. "It was built by the EU last year."
We step onto a large concrete porch, and see two large chalkboards. 'Controle de Français,' one reads. 'French test.' I look through it- there are a few questions on French grammar. A group of teenage boys sit on tables by the chalkboard, chatting. One of them comes up to me with a bright pink knitted hat- he gestures at me, seeing if I'm interested.
"What would I do with that?" I ask?
"You could buy it," he says.
I decline as politely as I can. Looking inside the rooms on either side I see several rows of bunk beds, each of which is sealed off with mosquito netting. Relative to the rest of the prison, this is luxurious. Dupleix has a small group gathered around him, and they're talking quietly. I go over to listen.
"Yes, it's true you made a mistake," he says. "You're young though, and you still have a chance. You need to learn from this, and when you get out, you need to follow the correct path." The boys nod. One of them passes along a phone number to him, saying he's an uncle in Douala. Dupleix promises to call.
We leave the juvenile section, and a guard lets us out through a side door- suddenly we're back in the main reception area; I'm grateful that we were able to avoid the crowd this time. We collect our IDs, and make our way out the door, where the same guards are standing with the same machine guns. Mahamadou, our driver is waiting across the road, and we quickly climb in and head off.
"Mon dieu," Dupleix says, shaking his head. My God.
I agree. I'm not particularly religious, but I think in this case, a little divine intervention at New Bell would be a good thing.
It's been said that the measure of the civilization of a society can be seen in how well it treats its prisoners. We have more than our share of problems with the prison system in the US, of course, but New Bell is something totally different. I've seen my share of disturbing things in the years I've worked in Africa, but the sights, smells, and sounds from today are something that will stay with me for years- it's scary to think what we're capable of as humans. I know we can't do much in the way of change for inmates of New Bell, but our visit there was meant as a way to get an idea- now that we understand the situation, at least someone, hopefully we can help...