Prisons and jails are placed at the bottom of the criminal justice system, prisons and prisoners get minimal attention. Prisons are places of rampant injustice with highly limited possibility of rehabilitation. The judiciary is slow, the bar uncaring, prisons are full to overflowing with people yet to be proven guilty of a crime. All too often, they remain jailed for longer than the maximum sentence they would have received–if properly tried. Many cannot afford the high cost of securing the services of a lawyer and several others do not have any family member of friend to provide any form of assistance. Several are juveniles, mentally ill, jailed for petty crimes that don’t demand incarceration or just unwanted. Most have little idea of why they are inside. Almost all are poor.
More than 70% of Cameroon’s carceral population is either illiterate or educated below high school. Majority of these people remain in prison pending trial or conviction. Above 69% of the prisoners are under pretrial detention and may continue to be held in overcrowded prisons for years. This makes them one of the weakest sections of society. Poor public defense and under-utilization of non-custodial measures add to the growing malaise of unnecessary or prolonged detention. Lack of inspections and sketchy implementation of oversight mechanisms turn prisons into frightening wrecks with shoddy living conditions. This rot in the criminal justice system impacts the psychological condition of a prisoner making the person more vulnerable than before to criminal propensities. The prisoner gets out of jail ruined and not reformed.
HSR-Cmr believes that a person behind bars is not beyond justice. Hence, we aim to cure the malaise the system suffers from. We strive to ensure that legal safeguards reach out to the last person in the queue – the prisoner, by increasing transparency of a traditionally closed system and holding the stakeholders accountable for the gaps. We stress monitoring of prison conditions, enhancement of legal aid practices, reform of prison management and foster cooperation between the various agencies of the criminal justice system in particular, the judiciary, lawyers, probation officers, prison administration and police. On a daily basis, we inform pre-detainees on avenues for seeking justice, we facilitate the process for them and in many cases we secure release for those who have been under prolonged detention unjustifiably. We use the Right to Information to question various agencies of the criminal justice system. We seek to achieve our goals through research, legal analysis and advice, advocacy, capacity building and network building. Over the years, we have worked in different parts of the country because in Cameroon prison is a state subject. We concentrate on monitoring demonstration projects on legal aid, court practices and jail reforms.
We currently run the Prisoners Rights’ Project in all prisons in the South West Region of Cameroon, where we monitor access to legal aid and prison facilities. We continue to keep an eye on prisons across Cameroon.