Written by Lily Ross

200 bodies lie piled together in a room made for 40. These prisoners have not yet been convicted.

As of October 2017, 55% or more of the total prison population in Madagascar were pre-trial detainees. These are individuals awaiting trial, or whose trials are still ongoing, and legislation states that they should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Yet the realities of the Madagascan justice system means that pre-trial detention can last for up to five and a half years for adults and 33 months for children. Those in pre-trial detention experience major human rights breaches. Their right to liberty, right to presumption of innocence, right to be tried within a reasonable time, right to be treated with humanity and right to be detained separately from convicted prisoners are all violated, placing their physical and mental health in serious danger.

A scene captured on film by Amnesty International at a Mankara prison demonstrates the horrific conditions that prisoners are forced to live, regardless of whether they have been convicted. In rooms with only two tiny barred windows meant for 40 people, 200 detainees are forced to lie on their sides on a concrete floor with no blankets, where they are eaten by bugs and must change position every hour at the clap of a guard. Jean said “In the big rooms, we sleep on the side, and everyone touches each other, it’s unbearable. Hundreds of us are together. We sleep only one to two hours per night, it’s really bad. In November and December it’s deadly. There’s no air.”

A large number of the accused offences are merely petty crimes; a young boy in Mankara was detained for stealing a vanilla pod, another for stealing a chicken. One of these boys was just 12. Only 24 out of 42 central Madagascan prisons have a separate section for minors, and children do not have access to any educational or vocational activities.

Whilst men are primarily affected by the conditions of detention, research shows that women and children suffer severely from the consequences. At Antisarabe prison in the Madagascan highlands, Ava is detained with her infant child and is pregnant with another baby. She was arrested because the police could not find her husband, despite informing them that she knew nothing about his case. Ava is by no means the only woman in this position and Amnesty’s report notes that facilities for pregnant women are ‘grossly inadequate,’ affirming that they must walk to hospitals, which are sometimes kilometres away, to give birth.

The impact of pre-trial detention disproportionately impacts the poorest in society. Having often been poorly educated these individuals are less literate and therefore struggle to negotiate the complex justice system, particularly children who have been born in prison or young people who have been away from education during incarceration. Alongside this, they cannot afford to hire lawyers, to purchase food, healthcare, clothes or blankets within the prison, and their families lack the resources to provide these from the outside. In Mankara prison alone 100 people have been identified as malnourished due to the lack of state funded food provision. Corruption means that those who can, bribe prison officials for their release, hence why the majority of the Madagascan prison population is destitute.

Sadly the situation in Madagascar is not unique. There are currently no Britons in Madagascar needing Prisoners Abroads help as it’s neither a common travel nor expat destination, but we are supporting 20 in the African continent. In South Africa, for example, some inmates in Johannesburg prison have been waiting up to 7 years to see a judge.[1]

In South America too, those we are supporting in Peru and Venezuela experience similar struggles. Through our survival grants, vitamin fund, medical fund, and collaboration with local consuls through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Prisoners Abroad play a crucial role in fighting for the welfare and human rights of individuals in developing countries, helping them to navigate justice systems and pay for food, water, healthcare and other basic necessities.

[1] Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective

Read the full story on Madagascar's prison shame