Antananarivo — Former gang member Robert, 62, shares a cell with 145 other inmates in Antanimora Prison in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo. He receives one meal a day of dried cassava.
Robert, who declined to divulge his last name or his crime, was sentenced to 20 years in 1995; his last visit from a family member was in 2003. "My wife has left me since, and my son has moved to France, so I don't see them anymore. My other family lives too far away to come here."
Without financial support from family members, he relies on a small income earned by teaching French and English to other inmates, which he uses to buy food and necessities. "We're the poor people here," he told IRIN.
The country's economy plummeted in the aftermath of the 2009 coup d'etat, and its prison system is rapidly deteriorating.
In 2008, the European Union (EU) granted US$2.5 million to NGOs working to improve prison conditions, but these funds will be exhausted by the end of this year. It is unclear if the justice ministry, whose budget was cut by 40 percent in 2011, will have any money for 2013.
"We've cut back on all other categories in order to be able to continue the food supply," Antanimora director Arsene Aubin Rajernerson told IRIN.
The US State Department's 2011 human rights report on Madagascar said chronic malnutrition affects as much as two-thirds of prisoners in some prisons and is the most common cause of inmate deaths.
The justice ministry had been planning to increase daily prison rations in 2008, but donors froze aid in response to the coup d'etat, and all the ministries' budgets were subsequently reduced.
In July 2012, Medicins du Monde, one of five EU-funded NGOs active in 24 prisons in northern Madagascar, distributed extra rations of 'koba' - crushed peanuts - and cassava to malnourished prisoners.
"Often the situation of prisoners improves just because we are there," Catherine Courtin of Medicins de Monde told IRIN. "The personnel at the prisons think that these living conditions are normal. After some training, they learn to look further," she said.
Even as money for prisons has decreased, the prison population has increased since 2009. The country's 83 prisons and detention centres were designed for 10,319 inmates, but house 19,870.
"Overpopulation is often 100 percent. You can find 150 people in a cell that's made for 40 inmates. Apart from food, hygiene is a huge problem. There isn't enough water for all these people, and the inmates have a scarce access to soap. Getting rid of the rats is a constant challenge," Alphonse Kananura, program director of Handicap International (HI), told IRIN.
Mamy, who was incarcerated for 18 months for "political reasons", told IRIN, "We spent the first two months after our arrest in the Tsiafahy Detention Center. The cell was built for 30 inmates, and there were 150 of us. You had to pay for everything - 20cm of space in a bed cost 30,000 ariary ($15). If you didn't pay, you slept with the rats on the floor."
Inmates must rely on family support or scrape together an income within prison.
"Everyone has his own business," said Mamy, who was transferred to Antanimora after his wife bribed prison officials. "Some inmates even manage to make enough money on the inside to support their families on the outside. But the poorest, those who don't have families to help them, starve. They sell their bodies to survive."
A 2012 report by HI found that 80 percent of inmates are abandoned by their families, often because poor families cannot afford to assist them financially. More than three-quarters of the country's population now live on less than $1 a day, according to government figures, up from 68 percent before the coup d'etat.
The HI report also notes that half of Madagascar's inmates are suffering from some form of mental distress.
The US State Department report found that only 47 percent of the inmates in Madagascar's prisons are convicted and many spend years awaiting trial. Jean Paul, accused of murder, told IRIN he spent two years awaiting trial before being sentenced to a five-year jail term.
"Some of the inmates claim they have no clue why they have been incarcerated, which, at times, raises the question of whether they have even broken the law ... The limited access to legal support makes it even more difficult for them to put their case across," Kananura told IRIN.
Relying on NGOs
Both foreign and national NGOs support Antanimora's prison population, which includes both juvenile and women inmates. The NGOs supply food, clothing, medicine and rehabilitation programmes.
HI social workers are trying to establish contact between inmates and their families. "A majority of the inmates are illiterate," Kananura said. "So we help them to write letters and teach them how to read and write."
The Swiss-based NGO Sentinel runs a project providing material and training for inmates to produce local crafts.
The juvenile section has also recently been renovated; it now has a basketball court, and about 100 teenagers are receiving schooling.
"We've been working here since July 2011. Not only do we do the buildings, but we have also organized the youngsters into groups of 10, according to the scouting system. This way, the stronger in each group can protect the weakest," the NGO's educator Toky Natolojanahary told IRIN.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]