Cameroon Diocese Reaches Out to Prisoners

CRS supports the Yaoundé diocese in Cameroon, where information officer Lane Hartill reports today on a project undertaken by the diocese. Pope Benedict XVI visits Cameroon March 17-20.

Suddenly, I feel like Matlock.

I’m walking amongst a few thousand men, some of who have been charged with murder and many of them want me to help them in court.

There’s Hubert and Mercy and Eric and Sunday. Their charges range from murder to stealing a sewing machine. All of them are being held at the central prison in Yaoundé, Cameroon, a central African country that lies in the nook of Africa. All of the prisoners here, of course, will tell you they are innocent – that’s not easy to believe. They also are desperate to get out of here. That is.

The prison was built in 1968 for 800 prisoners. The inmate population has swollen to about 4,000 today. The cells are humid and a fug of unbathed bodies hangs over them. In the women’s wing, 15 women are packed in a room. Pull back the curtains that veil their beds and their life is contained on the single shelf beside the bed: lipstick, plastic flowers, perfume.

In the men’s quarter’s it’s lunchtime. Today, like everyday, the menu is the same: Beans and corn. There’s no oil or spice. It’s a mealy, pulpy, flavorless mix. Most of the prisoners here rely on the kindness of the church or family members to bring them food. They also rely on the church to help win their release.

The Cameroonian Bishop’s Council issued a letter in January that read, in part: “Concrete works should be carried out towards the most vulnerable, so that every man may be honored in his dignity. Thus, in accord with the recommendations made by Pope Benedict XVI in the Encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” the parish and diocesan groups of Caritas will make visits to the orphanages, prisons, and hospitals,” the bishops said.

Deus Caritas Est, is more than a letter, it’s a papal call of hope to mankind. The Pope, who will visit Cameroon March 17 to 20, has given a mandate to reach out to people in need. And throughout Africa, the Church has amplified that call, urging citizens to reach out.

On the eve of the Pope’s visit, I want to see how Cameroonians are responding to the papal request. And it doesn’t take me long to realize that from the dank cells of the prison to the rusted shacks of the slums, Catholic’s are answering the call

Take Abby Albert Ottou Owona. He’s the general chaplain of the central prison.

“Deus Caritas Est is a universal message,” he says. “It’s not just among prisoners that Catholics should practice their charity. Charity should be practiced by everyone where man is found.”

This spirit of giving, he says, is hard-wired into Africans. “(In Africa) when you invite someone, you are truly inviting them. It’s the heart that’s speaking, not what you are giving them.”

The gospel, he says, reinforced the values that already existed in Cameroonian culture. “We are, in Africa, very charitable people,” he says. “The proof is that people here don’t eat alone. You can’t pass in front of people who are eating without hearing, ‘Come eat with us.’ ”

That spirit is present among the prisoners. Cells doors are open and men from different cell blocks mix freely amongst one another. Despite the overcrowding, security guards tell me, fights are rare. Everyone seems to be doing something: playing soccer, hanging laundry, stitching sacks and purses for sale, repairing televisions, leaning into bible study lessons.

But start talking to prisoners and the contentment turns out to be a veneer that gives way to layers of anxiety that burn in the prisoners, a frustration with an inefficient justice system that is out of their hands.

Most of the prisoners are charged with theft. With so many rural Cameroonians coming to Yaoundé, and so few jobs, many young people turn to petty theft to make ends meet. And most of the prisoners don’t have the means to hire lawyers. The state appointed lawyers are paid $10 per case and often refuse to represent clients until they get enough cases to make it worth their time. The judges are overwhelmed with cases and the prisoners’ files are lost, mishandled and delayed.

The Yaoundé Diocese Justice and Peace Commission works with prisoners stuck in the system. They find lawyers, make sure their files are processed correctly, establish contact with prisoners’ families, and pay lawyer fees to represent some clients. With only 20 magistrates in Yaoundé, and back logs of hundreds of cases, the court system is clogged with cases. That leaves prisoners to sweat it out in jail, often going months and years without a trial.

One man, held in solitary confinement, speaks through a small square hole in the cell door, fuming that he’s officially been released but they are still holding him. He’s with nine others in tiny sweltering cell. A legal counselor, who works for the Church, takes down his information, promises to look into it.

The most valuable service the legal team provides, says Solange Bessom, a legal counselor at the diocese of Yaoundé, is that they listen to prisoners. “We go and see them and listen to them. After listening, we point them in the right direction” A simple act of love, that nobody else is doing.

– Lane Hartill

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One Response to “Cameroon Diocese Reaches Out to Prisoners”

  1. Cameroon Sister’s Work Preaches The Gospel | Voices of CRS Says:

    […] CRS supports the Yaoundé diocese in Cameroon, where information officer Lane Hartill reports today on a project undertaken by the diocese. Pope Benedict XVI visits Cameroon March 17-20. Lane reported yesterday about a prison in Cameroon. […]

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