A detainee is seated on a mattress provided by the ICRC in Dessie Prison, Ethiopia.

Helping to improve conditions for detainees in Ethiopia

As part of its emergency response, the ICRC intensified its efforts to support Dessie prison authorities to protect the rights and dignity of the detainees.
Article 10 February 2023 Ethiopia

The response included rehabilitation of basic infrastructure supporting essential services to ensure humane conditions, mainly detainees' access to proper accommodation, health care, food, water, and sanitation services among others. The aim being to ensure detainees' well-being is respected and that the conditions of detention are in line with laws and internationally recognized standards. This remains the main aim of ICRC's detention work in line with its mandate and operational capacities throughout Ethiopia and in more than 80 countries worldwide.

Kebede* and his prison mate are seated on a wooden bench at the Dessie town correctional center in Ethiopia's Amhara region. Outside, weaving machines clack rhythmically as a group of inmates ply their craft in the prison's courtyard.

Kebede is a member of the detainees committee. He says returning to Dessie prison to a new and difficult reality disturbs him. The prison authorities had transferred detainees – including Kebede – to other correctional facilities in the region just before Dessie town became a battlefield for the war in northern Ethiopia.

We came back to this prison after the war and everything was empty," says Kebede who is serving a prison sentence for a crime that has kept him in jail for seven years. Dessie prison – the biggest in east Amhara - faced crisis since the armed conflict affected the town.

Detainees have struggled to start their lives all over again. And those serving long prison sentences are the most affected. Income from their livelihood activities was no longer available, leaving only limited means to cover basic individual needs such as food and clothing.

One serious consequence of the conflict is that it has adversely affected family visits. For Kebede, He is worried about his family that was displaced during the war.

Nobody has visited me since. I don't know where they are,

says Kebede.

With the improvement in security situation and basic social services fully restored in Dessie town, and measures taken to protect and keep the detainees safe, the priority remains to improve conditions of detention and to maintain contact between the detainees and their relatives.

Kebede says the ongoing support by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has brought significant progress. The ICRC is boosting resources allocated to Dessie Prison to improve the living conditions and make them safer and more humane for detainees to live with dignity.

We no longer sleep on chip wood. We received mattresses from the ICRC six months after we returned. ICRC fixed the water and now it flows, and the generator gives us electricity,

says Kebede.

Another member of the detainees' committee explained that the committee had first identified and distributed items from the ICRC like blankets, clothes and hygiene and sanitary items to the most vulnerable inmates – such as the mentally ill and those without family visits.

"Soldiers captured on the front lines don't have visits because their families are far away," he says, adding that the conditions have improved – even though much needs to be done – and their relationship with the prison administration is good.

The conflict might have significantly affected the Dessie prison, but, Commissioner Mulu Tadesse, the prison's administrator, said that it has not stopped them from giving enough food to the detainees.

"We still provide three meals a day, but the quality is not like before," she says. "Detainees want to spend their time in a constructive way. They want to watch the news and be informed and to engage in vocational training and activities. We have started providing them some of these services but not as before."

"ICRC has been with us step by step. They offered hygiene and sanitary items, generator, mats, pots, mattresses, medicines and medical equipment. The clinic was restored to its previous reality. Now, we have very few detainees going to the hospital," concludes Commissioner Tadesse.

The ICRC also provided fuel efficient stoves for the kitchen, recreational items, material needed to maintain personal and environmental hygiene and hygiene promotion training for detainees, says Andrey Sladkov, ICRC Detention Delegate in Ethiopia.