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UNICEF and Cameroon work to improve conditions for juvenile prisoners

UNICEF Image: cameroon, prison, juvenile offenders
© UNICEF video
Underage and in jail, juvenile offenders in Cameroon face harsh, squalid conditions with uncertain jail terms.

By Guy Hubbard

DOUALA, Cameroon, 14 April 2008 – Pascal is just 14 years old, but he is already living behind bars, as one of 85 juvenile inmates doing time in Douala’s Newbell prison.

Inmates here live on top of each other. They sleep, eat and wash in an area meant for only 30 prisoners. An open sewer runs through their cellblock, the roof leaks and all the mattresses are infested with lice.

“It’s crowded, there are not enough places to sleep and some boys have to sleep on benches,” says Pascal.

Arrested for stealing, Pascal has been in Douala for over 10 months without being tried. Many of the boys are here for lesser crimes like begging or smoking, but unless they are able to pay bribes, they, too, will wait months – or possibly years – for their day in court.

Improving conditions for youth offenders
Bernard, 17, has been in prison for more than three years, and the harsh conditions are taking their toll on him. Minors are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by older inmates, many of whom are living with HIV/AIDS. Bernard was imprisoned for two years before his case even went to court, and now, with nine months to go until the end of his sentence, he feels he’s lost out on life.

“My mother used to visit me, then I heard that she had died,” Bernard says. “Since then, no one comes to visit me.”

UNICEF, in partnership with Cameroon’s Ministry of Social Affairs, is working to improve conditions for minors in the country’s prisons. Together, they have provided prisons with televisions, educational materials, books, beds and blankets while also training judicial, police and prison officers to correctly treat juvenile offenders.

A chance for a better life
UNICEF’s ultimate aim is to get Cameroon’s children out of prison and into rehabilitation centres. Preparations are already under way for one such centre in Douala, where youth offenders will be provided with schooling, workshops and, most important, space.

© UNICEF video
UNICEF and the Government of Cameroon are working together to improve prison conditions for youths and give them a chance for a better life.

Although the children will remain under constant surveillance, with a social worker on staff for every 10 youths, the emphasis will be on rehabilitation to give them a shot at a better life.

“The minors go into prison in the primary stage of delinquency, but instead of being rehabilitated, they go into the second stage of delinquency,” says the Douala centre’s Director, Asana Rebecca Ngwenyi. “If they are placed here, we can get them out of delinquency and place them back into a normal life in society.”

Back in Newbell prison, Bernard stares at a village scene that he has painted, in which boys swim in the sea while a mother and child look on. The painting depicts a freedom he has not known for three long years. Eventually, he will be released. But without an education or practical skills, life on the outside could be just as bleak as the one he has endured in prison.




UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on efforts in Cameroon to improve conditions for incarcerated minors.
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