It has been eighteen months since David Adjé saw his three younger brothers, detained in the civil prison of Lomé, Togo having banned visits to penitentiary centers at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I am overwhelmed and in shock, because I do not know the conditions in which my brothers find themselves”, worries this sixty-year-old, commercial agent in a private company.
Since April 13, 2020, the Togolese authorities have banned visits to prisons in order to ” protect “ the inmates “Against the risk of contamination from outside”. “All visits to detainees in civilian prisons in Togo and at the Lomé Juvenile Brigade are suspended until further notice”, declared the Minister of Justice, Pius Agbétomey, specifying that exceptional exemptions could be granted after examination.
For many Togolese, the ban on visits is disproportionate in view of the health situation. Togo has recorded 26,178 cases of Covid-19, including 243 deaths, according to the latest official figures. At the start of the pandemic, a large number of countries made the decision to ban visits to protect detainees, but most have since lifted the ban.
Almost vital visits
“Prisoners are a special category of people, whose isolation deserves solidarity and psychological support from parents”, judge Aimé Adi, director of Amnesty International in Togo. “It is really time to reopen the prisons to relieve the prisoners and their parents”, adds Kao Atcholi, president of the Association of victims of torture in Togo (Asvitto).
In Togo, as in many African countries, visits are almost vital for detainees, as they allow relatives to bring them food, clothing and medicine, as the prison system is generally underfunded. Some relatives go there every day to bring meals.
“I don’t know if my relatives are sick. I saw them at the beginning of April 2020. The visits allowed me to cheer them up by regularly bringing them food and medicine ”, laments Aboubacar Amidou, whose six close relatives are locked in the civil prison of Lomé, arrested in the wake of major opposition protests, in October 2017.
Togo has been ruled since 2005 by Faure Gnassingbé, who came to power after the death of his father, General Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who himself led Togo for 38 years. He was re-elected in polls which were all contested by the opposition.
NGOs deprived of access to detainees
In addition to families, it is the NGOs and associations providing assistance to detainees who are now prohibited from visiting. “The parents of some detainees entrust us with parcels that we give to the officials of the prison administration. But we do not have access to the detainees ”, deplores Ali Essoham, in charge of the “Observers of prisons” program of the NGO Global Solidarity for the deprived and inmates.
For the director of the prison administration, Akibou Idrissou, “It would be too early to reopen prisons in the face of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country” these last months : “The prison is a closed environment and it was important for the government to anticipate to protect the residents and prevent a rapid spread of the virus in our prisons. Most inmates are vaccinated, as are the staff. Even the new detainees registered in recent times have been vaccinated for a few days. In addition, to relieve the detainees, the government offers them another meal. “
Only lawyers now have access to detainees, but they must first obtain authorization. “The morale of the prisoners was already very low. With this decision, they are more isolated ”, regrets Me Claude Kokou Amegan, who was able to visit several of his clients. According to him, the ban on visits has been taken “At a time of the pandemic when all states were looking for each other”, but today we could “Rigorously impose barrier measures and allow parents and lawyers to see the detainees”, especially since“A good part of the prison population is now vaccinated”.
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In Togo, detainees deprived of visits since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic