“The place was very bad, about 45 of us were in the same cell at the Remand Wing,” he recalled of his days at Mile 2, the state central prison of The Gambia.
Opened in 1920 by the British colonial authorities, Mile 2 is located on the highway to the Gambia’s capital, Banjul. It is about six minutes’ drive from the capital.
The Remand Wing of Mile 2, where Pap was, is one of the four sections of the prison. It is where suspects undergoing trial are kept. It has 11 cells divided into two sections, separated by a wall of 15 metres high. Cells 1 to 6 are on one section, and 7 – 11 on the other. Cells 1 to 8 are of the same size, measuring about 2.5m by 3m. The biggest cells are 9, 10 11, each measuring approximately 3.5m by 6m.
Pap could not remember his cell number at Remand, but the total of prisoners in the cell: “45 of us were in the cell, the same cell”.
Other prisoners who were remanded the same time with Pap also gave similar numbers in their respective cells. A former remand prisoner Balla Musa Saidy, for instance, said for the four years he was in remand, the smallest in his cell was 35 prisoners, sometimes it goes up to 45.
Based on the testimonies of various former prisoners who were in remand, the average prisoners in each cell at Remand was 30, from 2009 to 2017.
Pap’s crime was his newspaper’s publication of statement by the Gambia Press Union criticising the then president, Yayha Jammeh, for comments about the unsolved 2004 murder of Deyda Hydara, a journalist that co-founded The Point newspaper with Pap.
A day after publication of the statement, on 12 June 2009, Pap together with six other senior journalists, including executive members of the GPU were invited for questioning by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). The NIA was set by the former president as a unit under his office and it eventually became the most notorious and fearsome agency in the country.
After four days of intense interrogation by the NIA, Pap and others were taken to a lower court in Kanifing where they were charged with six counts of sedition and defamation.
“It was on Thursday, 15th June 2009,” Sam Sarr, one of the seven journalists, recalled. “The court refused to grant us bail even though the offence was a misdemeanor.”
That was when they were first remanded at Mile 2.
In a speedy trial which last barely two months, the High Court in Banjul found the journalists guilty as charged and sentenced them to two years in prison and fined 250,000 dalasi, equivalent to about 10,000 US dollars at the time.
The conditions that Pap left the Remand Wing about 11 years ago are still the same prevailing situation there as observed during a conducted tour of Mile 2 in November 2019.
The only thing that might have changed now is the number of prisoners in the cells, particularly remand. It is now between 17 and 20 prisoners in a cell.
“The condition has improved since 2017,” a senior prison officer in charge of the remand said during the tour of the cells.
What serves as bed at Mile 2 remand cells is a wooden plank placed over a raised platform of about 50cm high. Each wooden plank is about 50cm wide and 1.8 metres long.
Each prisoner is given a one-man mattress of about 1inch thick. Those that have access to the bed spread their mattresses on the wooden plank, and the rest, on the damp floor.
With a maximum of five beds in cell of at least 17 people, the prisoners themselves devised a means of accessing the beds.
“Access to bed in remand is by seniority in the prison – those who came to the cell first are the ones who use the bed,” Pap explained.
Some spread their mattresses underneath the bed to have a space to sleep. The space underneath the wooden planks that serves as bed is referred to by the prisoners as ‘dombelow”. It is formally referred to as ‘down below’.
The space ‘down below’, barely enough for four people lying on their back, is shared by six prisoners. While others sleep on top and under the wooden planks, the rest sit on the bare floor between the beds and the wall of the cell – a space of about half a metre.
Sleeping on the dombelow is by turn – one batch sleeps for a certain hours and another batch comes.
The nightly struggle in remand is not just on access to beddings, but also fresh air.
The cells have two windows, about 1m by 30cm with a crisscrossed of heavy iron bars as burglar-proof. It has one wall fan. And with the ongoing reforms at Mile 2, an opening of about 30cm square, for air passage, is created on some of the iron doors. The opening is fitted with mesh shaped burglar-proof.
But the air that makes into the cell is not enough even to dissipate the smelly sweat of 17 adults cramped together in a small room with stinking mattresses and worn-out bedsheets that are hardly ever washed.
To add to the malodourous smell, the remand prisoners are locked in their cells for 14 long hours with a pot where they pass urine and defecate. Each cell is given one or two 5litre mayonnaise buckets they called ‘chamber pot’ that is place inside the cell next to the door. From 6pm to 8am daily, this is the pot the remand prisoners use for urine and defecate.
Emil Touray, a former remand prisoner, said: “No one was comfortable using the chamber pot. If you happen to defecate and make noise [fart] in the process, you feel ashamed.
“Because of that, during my time in Remand I chose not to be eating dinner so that I can avoid using the chamber pot at night. I know a lot of people who were not also eating in the evening because they didn’t want to use the pot.”
But even if you don’t use the chamber pot, living with it in the same small cell was a nightmare for the prisoners.
“The smell was very horrible in the cell at night,” Emil lamented.
Remand and retained
Based on the laws of The Gambia, any offence whose punishment is a sentence of death or life imprisonment is unbailable. Murder is punishable by the death sentence only, hence no bail. Other crimes such as arson, treason, robbery, manslaughter, terrorism and rape carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Table of serious crimes in Gambia
Note: Crimes with * are unbailable only when the charges is life imprisonment
Bail in every other circumstance is at the discretion of the presiding magistrate or judge, upon consideration of certain elements.
And the magistrate in the case of Pap Saine decided, by discretion, to deny them bail and remanded them for a misdemeanour allegation.
Based on official statistics of Mile 2, from 2010 to 2019 on average, 20-25% of the total prison population were remand prisoners.
Many of those remand prisoners languish in jail for months and years without trial.
Balla Musa Saidy, for example, was denied bail and remanded at Mile 2 by a magistrates’ court where he was charged with conspiracy to rob after he attempted to arrest a drug suspect as part of his military police duties.
“I was remanded on 12 October 2008, and by this time, I had already been detained for six months at Yundum Barracks, from May 2008 to October of the same year when I was taken to court and remanded,” the 46-year-old said.
A sergeant in the Gambia National Army at the time, Balla’s trial lasted four years and all this while, he was in the cell at remand.
“I spent 4 years, 10 days at Mile 2 remand,” he said. “During these days, there were times that for more than one year I was not taken to court. For example, since I went there in October 2008, I have not been to court until October 2009.”
And even after the commencement of Balla’s trial, he goes to court once every two or three months.
“My case was taken to three different judges and it was the third one at the high court in Banjul that acquitted and discharged me on 12 November 2012,” he said. “Essentially, what I was alleged to have committed was unfounded after four years of trial.”
Balla’s four years of remand was not unique him.
“During my stay at remand, I saw people there that spent 11 years; others have been there for more than 8 years without been taken to court,” he said. “I found some of them there, leaved with them for four years and left them there.”
Balla’s experience and testimony of long remand period is corroborated by lots former and current remand inmates.
Ahmed Gaye was in remand (as of November 2019). He was charged with murder, an unbailable offence, but his trial has been dragging for more than seven years and he has been in prison all this while. He shares his cell with 16 other prisoners.
“I have been here for more than seven years,” Ahmed said while standing in front of his cell with his hands folded at his chest. He and three others were identified as the longest serving remand prisoners.
His case has been set for judgement since 12 June 2019 but no date has been set so far.
One Baboucarr Touray has also been waiting for judgement in a rape trial for more than one year. No date has been set for the judgement.
The most high-profile remand prisoner, as of January 2019, is Yankuba Badjie, the former director general of the National Intelligence Agency. He and seven other operatives of the agency are being tried for murder.
For three years, the trial has been going on with no end in sight.
“I have been here since February 2017,” he said while removing his dark eyeglasses as he sits on a stool just in front of his remand cell which is shared with 19 other prisoners.
“The state called 35 witnesses to testify. The testimonies closed in July 2019, so it’s time for us to open our defence but since then there is no progress in our case.”
As of November 2019 out of total of 588 prisoners at Mile 2, at least 295 were on remand. At least half of the remand prisoners were there for bailable offences.
The prison authorities said the issue of long remand is caused not by the prisons but prosecutors, particularly police prosecutors.
However, the condition at Mile 2 in terms of long remand period is different from the other prisons, Jeshwang and Janjanbureh.
For instance, while the longest serving remand prisoner at Mile 2 is seven years, the one at Jeshwang remand is under two years. The same is true for Janjanbureh prison.
The Gambia Police Force did not reply to a formal letter of request for interview and statistics of successful prosecution for the last ten years, average duration of common prosecutions, and average duration of remand. Several follow ups were made through the office of the public relations officer to no avail.
The Judiciary also did not reply to a formal letter of request for interview and statistics on successful trials, average duration of common trials, and the most crimes remanded, apart from the statutory ones.
Judges and magistrates were supposed to be submitting monthly returns, listing the ongoing cases and decided ones, each month. But it has not been happening. And the Judiciary did not have any central registry of cases at the courts.
Convicted at Jeshwang
Meanwhile, when Pap Saine and others were convicted after two months of trial, they were taken to Jeshwang Prison, the second largest state prison. It is about 10km from Mile 2 in the metropolitan area of Kanifing. The prison is located in a residential area, opposite a community school and a local football field, and adjacent to an open community market.
The prison has two sections: the main yard and the juvenile section. The main yard has two units – cells for adult convicts, and for remand prisoners. The juvenile section consists of two cells, one for remand and the other for convicts. This section is for those 18 years of age and below.
Pap was admitted at the convict’s unit of the main yard. The yard has two line houses. One of them is divided into three cells, Cells 1 to 3. But these cells are not in use now after the August 2018 jail break in which the 23 escaped prisoners made it through the roof of the building.
One of the abandoned cells was were Pap was jailed.
The cell now used to house the convicts is a line house divided into two cells, number 5 and 6, with a door at the entrance of the building separating the cells: on the right is number 5, and left, 6. Each of the cells measures about 5m by 12m, and each has a toilet and a bathroom inside. Each cell has four big windows, two in front and two at the back, and each measures about 1.3m by 1m. The two cells, as of November 2019, have a total of 57 convicts.
After the jail break, the prison authorities completed one of the three big cells under construction since 2014 as part of the Jeshwang Prison expansion project.
The new cell is now used to house the 51 remand prisoners at Jeshwang as of November 2019.
Eighteen individual cells are being constructed as part of the project. Five of the cells are almost ready and are used to house the five long term convicts at Jeshwang.
As the only state prison with a juvenile unit, Jeshwang Prison’s juvenile section has one cell for remand and another one for convicts. Each of the cells measure about 6m by 10m, and each has two toilets and bathrooms inside. For ventilation, each has three big windows measuring about 1.5m by 1m.
The 14 juvenile remand prisoners, and the 5 convicts were in prison for committing, or alleged to have committed, mostly theft and related crimes such as housebreaking, burglary, and robbery.
Like it is for adults, each of the juvenile prisoners have a one-man mattress that they placed on a raised concrete platform that serves as bed.
The first hall, upon entering the reception of the building housing the juvenile section, is the classroom for the teenagers. There they are taught English, Mathematics, Science, Social and Environment Studies, and Arabic, if the teenager is of the Muhammedan faith. The subjects are delivered by two qualified teachers, one of whom is a prison officer.
In The Gambia, death is the punishment for murder and some forms of treason. And from 2010 to 2019, a total of 67 people have been convicted at Mile 2 for murder.
Table of gender breakdown and total number of cases convicted in each year at Mile 2
Even though the record of Mile 2 could not show whether all these prisoners were condemned, Barrister Muhammed Ndure said once convicted for murder, the punishment is death sentence.
But based on the records of Mile 2, 16 prisoners are on death row and two of them are women, as of December 2019. Eight other prisoners, including a woman, are on life sentence.
Jeshwang Prison also has two death row inmates and another two on life sentence. The other state prison, Janjanbureh has none on death or life sentence.
The former government executed nine death row inmates in August 2012.
However, the current government has put moratorium on execution in February 2018, following the signing of the UN treaty on the abolition of capital punishment in 2017.
Barrister Ndure said since the imposition of moratorium on death penalty, all punishments that were supposed to executed by death would be remitted to life imprisonment.
Table of crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment
Meanwhile, from 2009 to 2019, the highest number of convictions at Mile 2 were due to stealing and housebreaking, and dealing or trafficking drugs. These crimes together make up an average of 50-65% of the total conviction at Mile 2 for the past ten years. And almost all these cases involved youth, under 35 years of age.Note: Punishment with * are crimes that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, lesser punishments are also applicable depending on the severity of the crime.
On average, 380 convicted prisoners are sent to Mile 2 every year for the past ten years.
In 2019, 349 convicted were sent for imprisonment at Mile 2 alone.
The convicts at Mile 2 are divided among the three other sections of the prison: main yard, maximum security wing or confinement, and the female wing.
The Main Yard is usually the most densely populated part of the prison housing 224 inmates, as of November 2019, in just six cells, each measuring about 3.5m by 6m. Two of the cells, Cell 4 and 6, have 47 and 44 inmates, respectively in November 2019. The other cells have an average of 32 inmates.
The Maximum Security Wing houses mainly detainees, death row inmates, senior government officials and security officers.
During the days of dictatorship, it is where punishment was routinely carried out by the masked forces that come from outside and the very prison wardens themselves.
The wing is divided into four blocks. Block 1 has 12 single cells and as of November 2019, 10 of the cells are occupied. Block 4 with 32 single cells have 16 inmates. Block 5 has single 99 cells and 30 prisoners, and Block 7 is a hall. It is mainly used for old and sick inmates if they are not on death row.
As of November 2019, 77 of the prisoners at Maximum Security Wing were on remand because the wing is also used to isolate, in the word of prison authorities, strong headed prisoners from other sections of the prison.
The Female Wing of Mile 2, as the name suggests, is where female inmates are kept. It has two cells, one for convicts and another one for remand. By November, there were seven convicts and six remand.
Of the three state prisons in The Gambia, only one has an infirmary, a clinic in prison, which is at Mile 2. Jeshwang Prison relies on the clinic at Mile 2. Jeshwang Prison and Mile 2 are about 10km away.
The other prison, Janjanbureh Prison, relies on Bansang Hospital, about 20km away. The smallest of the three prisons, Janjanbureh Prison is located about 300km from Banjul. Both Janjanbureh and Jeshwang prisons have no ambulance to transport their patients.
Meanwhile, the clinic at Mile 2 is located within the prison yard, about five metres from the kitchen which is located at the far right of the main entrance of the prison.
This special clinic for prisoners receives an average of 500 outpatient visits every month. It is manned by an officer-in-charge, a prison officer, who has no background or training on nursing or medicine. The highest training attended was an apprenticeship of about four months on basic case management at one of the referral hospitals in the country. The training was enough only to make her recognise the common antibiotics and pain relievers and prescribed these medicines based on common symptoms.
The two other senior nurses, also prison officers, went through similar traineeships but a more specialised one: on leprosy and TB infection control at Serekunda General Hospital.
These are the people, together with those they, themselves, trained at the clinic, that run the Mile 2 clinic.
The most common cases that the clinic receives are gastritis, abdominal pain, running stomach, eye sore, hypertension, tuberculosis, and in the rainy season, malaria.
And the officers running the clinic said there are drugs to control these conditions.
According to the statistics of Mile 2, up to 2017, death of prisoners was almost a monthly occurrence. The officers in charge of the clinic confirmed this without commenting on the type of disease(s) that caused the most death.
“But now death is not common, the whole of this year (2019), just two died,” the prison officers said.
In the four years that he spent in remand at Mile 2, Balla Musa witnessed the death of four people at the remand wing alone.
“I remember one Ensa Jatta, I think his surname was Jatta; he was the first to die during my stay. He was at Cell number 11,” the army officer said. “By the time they refer prisoners for proper check up at the hospital, it is too late for any treatment to be effective on you so if care is not taken, you come back death.”
The prison health officers said on daily basis, they refer an average of 8 prisoners for proper check-up at Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital and Serekunda General Hospital, the two referral hospitals in the country.
According to the health officers, when the number of prisoners needed to be taken to hospital is too much, they are reduced and others wait for the next day.
There used to be a periodic visit at Mile 2 of medical doctors from the country’s main hospital in Banjul but this visits are now few and far apart. The prison health officers could not remember the last time the doctors visited in 2019.
The daily ration
This is the official menu of prisons in The Gambia as stated in the prison rules
The three state prisons operate on the same menu and from a cursory look of it, the prisoners eat good, almost the same menu of an average Gambian family in the urban areas.
In spite of the fancy menu, when Sarata Jabbie was taken to Mile 2, she could not eat the food.
“When I arrived at Mile 2 it was lunch time and we were given rice and ‘domoda’ [groundnut soup],” she said. Sarata was remanded with the baby she was breastfeeding. “I was not able to eat the food because I was not in the mood to eat but even if I were, I couldn’t swallow that food because even by looking, I knew the food was not good, it was not well cooked.”
More than 10 years after Sarata left the remand, in 2019 Kila Ace was there. The 16 days that he spent in the cell, he did not eat the prison food for the family was regularly bringing his bowl, but he said: “The prison food was disgusting even by sight.”
Across all the prisons in The Gambia, food is cooked by male convicts, supervised by the officers who themselves are not chefs or dieticians.
In terms of ration, each prisoner has about a cup and half of rice for lunch, and similar amount of cherreh (steamed coos) for dinner daily.
Meanwhile, since 2017, the menu has been changed a bit by replacing pap for breakfast with full bread and butter with tea, daily.
Prison authorities said the current government effected the change upon realisation that the daily intake of pap was responsible for the high cases of beriberi that the prison used to register.
However, the prisoners lamented that the ingredients of their lunch and dinner are always as good as not having it. The two days of the week that lunch is served with meat, the morsel is so small as demonstrated by one of the inmates: “It is as small as this,” the inmate said while holding the top of his thumb.
The two main prisons, Mile 2 and Jeshwang, have rehabilitation programmes for prisoners in form of vocational trainings for adults and religious and academic education for juveniles.
At Mile 2, inmates are trained on tailoring, electrical installation, plumbing, and information technology. A new training centre was opened there in 2017 through a partnership between Insight Training Centre and The Netherland Embassy and MRC Holland Foundation.
Since the establishment of the training centre, it periodically graduates inmates with certificates in tailoring, electrical installation, plumbing, and information technology.
Before the centre, Mile 2 maintained and still has a tailoring workshop and a technical department where carpentry, welding, bricklaying and wiring are taught to inmates through coaching by prison officers.
The tailoring workshop with seven sewing machines is run by prisoners together with prison officers. They sew all the uniforms of prisoners and prison officers and also do commercial tailoring.
Similarly, the technical department team of prisoners and prison officers do all the necessary carpentry, welding, bricklaying and wiring in the prison.
The heads of all these workshops lamented lack of necessary tools to operate. As of November 2019, welding, carpentry and wiring workshops of the technical department were not in regular operation because their tools were in disrepute.
Meanwhile, prisoners working at these workshops received no financial benefits except for the statutory D5 per month compensation stated in the Prison Act for the eligible convicted prisoners.
While there is no such rehabilitation facility at Janjanbureh Prison, there are similar workshops at Jeshwang Prison for convicted adults.
Jeshwang also have a classroom where juvenile convicts are taught English, Mathematics, Science, and Social and Environmental Studies as well as Arabic for prisoners of the Muhammedan faith. The subjects are delivered by qualified teachers from the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education posted to the Prison and one of the prison officers who was a qualified teacher.
Older than Gambia
Prison Act is one of the oldest laws in The Gambia that has never been amended since the country gained independence. The law was promulgated in 1953 and amended twice, the last time been 1963, two years before the country became independent in 1965.
For Madi Jobarteh, a human rights advocate, this is an anomaly.
“You cannot sit for more than 50 years and not amend a subsidiary legislation, especially a legislation dealing with the prison,” he said. “This means the state itself does not concern itself with the condition of the prison and that explains why the condition of the prisons in the country is so horrible.”
In view of this, since the coming into power of the current government, after ending the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh, widely seen as a dictator, one of the topmost things on their agenda has been legal and institutional reforms. Prison Act review and prison administration reform featured prominently on this agenda.
“When you go to prison, you see prisoners cooking, clearing the yard, fetching firewood and they are not paid for that,” he said. “When prisoners do labour they should be paid for it.”
In this vein, in October 2017, the government formed a committee tasked with reviewing the Act, to bring it in line with international human rights norms and best practices as regards prisons and prisoners, as well as recommend possible structural and administrative reform for the prison system.
Madi was one of the committee members.
He said one of the issues they highlighted in their review was the payment of prisoners for the labour provided in the prison.
“When you go to prison, you see prisoners cooking, clearing the yard, fetching firewood and they are not paid for that,” he said. “When prisoners do labour they should be paid for it.”
Based on the current act, a convicted prisoner is only eligible for prison payment scheme after spending three years and comporting him/herself in a good behaviour. After three years, such prisoner should be paid D5 per month even without any labour.
“But even that is not adhered to and the usual excuse is: there is no money,” Madi said.
So the proposal of the committee was that every convicted prisoner be entitled to a monthly allowance of D50 which shall be subject to periodic review by the Minister of Interior in consultation with the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs.
And any prisoner whose labour is used in the services of the prison be paid D100 per day for skilled labour, D50 per day for non-skilled labour, and D25 per day for light labour.
Another issue flagged by Madi and his committee was the issue of visitation to convicted inmates. Based on the act, a convicted criminal prisoner is allowed visits once every three months, and the discussion during such visit shall take place within sight and hearing of a prison officer.
The committee’s proposal is for the visit to be once every week and the discussion between the prisoners and visitors be within sight, not hearing, of a prison officer.
Similarly, based on the act, no one shall have access to a prisoner under sentence of death, except in few limited instances, but the committee said this provision is archaic and should be deleted as condemned prisoners also deserved visitations.
However, since the submission of their report to the government early 2018 with the suggested amendments and reforms, no amendment or reform has taken place in the Prison Act or system since then.
But not only the Act, the new government has so far not done any significant structural or administrative reforms at any of the prisons.
The only changes, according to Superintendent Ebrima Ceesay, officer in charge of Mile 2 prison, is that there is no torture of inmates now. And unlike before, the NIA do not come to take prisoners away for torture or make them disappear.
Ceesay said the prison system has been so neglected that “sometimes we feel that we are not part of the government”.