Lome — Togo's 12 prisons - many of them dilapidated - hold more than twice their designed capacity. The congestion, as well as inadequate food, medical care and poor hygiene have led to diseases and deaths.
Drawn-out court cases and procedures, arbitrary arrests as well as the detention of petty offenders without the option of bail are among the factors causing prison congestion, according the Togolese Human Rights League (LTDH).
"The prison overpopulation is very alarming. The consequences are dire, indeed fatal for the detainees," LTDH president RaphaÃ«l Kpandé-Adjaré told IRIN.
Of the 3,844 prisoners in Togo, only 1,347 are convicts. The rest, about 65 percent, are awaiting trial and half of them have not been charged, according to the prison authorities.
In the main prison in the capital Lomé, there are 1,844 inmates yet the prison was meant to hold 666. At a prison in Tsévié area, 30km from the capital, 228 people have been locked up in a facility designed to hold 66 - almost four times the capacity.
"We sleep very close to one another, with our heads on someone else's feet, like sardines in a tin. At night we sleep in shifts, while some lie down, the others stand against the wall waiting impatiently for their turn," an inmate in the Lomé prison told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
Sixteen-year-old Amenoussi Dieudonné who was detained for a month after being arrested in June with a group of protesters demanding fair elections said: "During my 30-day detention in Lomé prison, I never lay down. I stayed upright all night and my feet were so swollen."
Justice Minister Tchitchao Tchalim said in August that 28 prisoners had died in the first three months of 2012, while LTDH says 18 inmates died in the Lomé prison alone between January and May.
LTDH and Togolese rights group Together for Human Rights (EDH) have blamed the judiciary for the high prison population. Atlas of Torture, a watchdog against mistreatment, recently ranked Togo the fourth worst country in the world in terms of the number of detainees awaiting trial.
"Judges hesitate to issue orders to temporarily free those in remand. Some court rulings are also not respected," said Jil-Benoît Afangbédji, head of EDH, citing the case of a suspect who was detained in Tsévié prison despite the Supreme Court ordering his release on bail.
"This situation caused by government officials is an impediment to reducing the prison population," he added.
However, Tsévié prosecutor Placide Clément Kokouvi Mawunou defended the judges, arguing that they were doing their best, while the prosecutors face difficult working conditions. "You use your own computer, vehicle and telephones to prepare cases."
When a country has more than 30 percent of all detainees awaiting trial, it is an indication of a failure in the administration of justice, according to Atlas of Torture.
- [ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]
Despite Togo launching the Urgent Prison Support Programme in 2006, an initiative backed by the European Union to improve prisons, little has changed and many prisons see cases of tuberculosis.
Afangbédji of the EDH said there was no evidence the government was doing much to reduce prison congestion and improve justice delivery. "Today it is an open secret that the population of the detainees is way above the capacity of our prisons. This didn't begin today and a solution should be found... We can say that the government has no real will to reduce the prison population," Afangbédji said.
However, prisons' administration director Kodjo Gnambi Garba said the government "has done a lot to improve prisons, but the results take time to be seen. The government has set in motion urgent measures to decrease the prison population."
The authorities plan to reduce the number of those on remand by half by the end of 2012 by speeding up court cases, increasing court personnel and hearings as well as granting bail and freeing petty offenders such as those accused of stealing chickens, sheep or mobile phones.
"The authorities are concerned by the provisional detention. Instructions have been issued to reduce the number by half by the end of the year," said Justice Minister Tchitchao Tchalim, adding that there were plans to also modernize the judiciary.
"The plan will see the construction of new prisons, adding personnel and material in the judiciary, annual recruitment of magistrates and reorganizing the prisons' administration staff."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]