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Côte d'Ivoire: Improving conditions of detention

07-01-2014 Interview

ICRC delegates visit detainees all over the country. Their observations and recommendations help the authorities improve the treatment and living conditions of detainees.

With over 10,000 detainees in the country, the Ivorian authorities face a number of challenges. Prison overcrowding is a major concern. In an effort to alleviate this problem, 3,000 detainees were granted a presidential pardon and released in October 2013.

In order to gain insight into the state of Ivorian prisons and the efforts being made by the authorities and the ICRC to improve detention conditions, we sat down with four people familiar with the reality both inside and outside the prison walls.

A senior official and an ICRC protection delegate

Mohamed Coulibaly [MC] is the prison service director at the Ivorian Ministry of Justice. Svetlana Iudina [SI] is the ICRC delegate in charge of the ICRC’s detainee-welfare programme in Côte d'Ivoire.


What effect did the latest crisis have on prisons?

[MC]: During the post-electoral crisis, armed men stormed into the prisons and set all the inmates free. Facilities were looted and sometimes wrecked. Afterwards, things had to be rebuilt.

Most of the current facilities date from colonial times. Many of these buildings were never meant to be prisons and have been poorly adapted for the purpose. The newest facility is the Maison d'arrêt et de correction in Abidjan, which dates from 1980. Recently, however, the government decided to build 10 new prisons that meet international standards.

Prison overcrowding is a major issue. How should it be dealt with?

[MC]: Every prison in the country has far exceeded its capacity. One of the problems is that the pre-trial detention period is too long. Detainees live in a state of uncertainty. We must ensure that they are not being unjustifiably detained.

It's time to revisit the policies of the prosecutors. Remand should be the exception rather than the rule. The recent appointment of new judges should reduce the number of detainees by facilitating the conditional release process.

Will the presidential pardons recently decreed by the government help mitigate the situation?

[MC]: President Ouattara decided in September to grant a collective pardon to 3,000 detainees convicted of minor offences such as theft, fraud, and unlawful breach of trust. This exceptional measure will significantly reduce the number of detainees in prisons.

[SI]: While they may temporarily ease the burden of prison authorities, the presidential pardons won't be enough to make up for structural and organizational problems.

Could you tell us more about the workshop that took place at the beginning of the month?

[SI]: The workshop’s aim was to come up with simple and practical solutions to improve prison management and detention conditions. At a previous meeting, prison officials had expressed the need to engage in dialogue with ICRC delegates. The workshop, which was organized in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice, provided a forum for this dialogue.

Prison administrators were particularly interested in learning more about how to draw up and manage a budget. Specialists from the Ministry of Economy and Finance guided prison administrators through the process of preparing a budget for a fictional prison with a growing inmate population. Participants greatly appreciated the value of this practical exercise.

[MC]: Besides working on budget creation and management, prison administrators also had the opportunity to hone their skills in nutritional monitoring, ensuring good prison hygiene and building maintenance.

What other problems are you facing?

[MC]: Malnutrition. Prison budgets can’t meet the nutritional needs of the detainees. Without proper nutrition, detainees become vulnerable to illness and even death. The authorities responsible for running the prisons need to increase their food-budget allowance.

Grand Bassam prison, Côte d'Ivoire. Before the ICRC carried out upgrading work. 

Grand Bassam prison, Côte d'Ivoire.
Before the ICRC carried out upgrading work.

It’s the Ministry of Justice that has the task of looking after detainee health. We’re cooperating with doctors and nurses from the Ministry of Health. We’re hoping that a document on health policies in prisons will soon be approved by the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health so that it can be implemented as soon as possible.

How has the ICRC responded to these problems?

[SI]: Since the beginning of the year, ICRC delegates have carried out 159 visits to 60 places of detention throughout the country, seeing over 10,600 detainees in the process. We’ve identified two groups that are especially at risk: people detained in connection with the armed violence of the post-electoral crisis and those detained on national security grounds. The 454 detainees in this category have been registered and their cases individually monitored.

The main purpose of our visits, however, is to improve detention conditions for all detainees. We help the prison authorities provide adequate health care and food, proper hygiene and sanitation, all in accordance with national legislation and international standards. The specific needs of women and children in detention are of particular concern.

Grand Bassam prison, Côte d'Ivoire. The same place after the work was completed. 

Grand Bassam prison, Côte d'Ivoire.
The same place after the work was completed.

So far this year, the ICRC has provided 10 prison health-care facilities with medicines and equipment. It has facilitated access to care for over 400 detainees, some of whom had beriberi, and aided 226 others suffering from severe malnutrition. Food supplies have been distributed to three prisons.

The ICRC has carried out partial repair and upgrading work to kitchens, storage facilities, water-supply systems, and sanitation systems in six prisons. It has organized nine campaigns to exterminate disease-spreading insects and distributed hygiene items to 33 places of detention, making it possible for 9,400 detainees to maintain clean living conditions and good personal hygiene.

What does ICRC support mean to you?

[MC]: ICRC staff work side by side with us in prisons all over the country. They’ve taken action when crisis has struck, for example in Man and Bouaké, where the ICRC recently delivered urgently needed food supplies. The organization provides us with invaluable expertise on nutrition, health care, sanitation, maintaining hygiene, and repairing and upgrading various facilities.

What is the relationship between the ICRC and prison authorities and detainees?

[SI]: In order to be effective, the ICRC needs to work closely with detainees and prison authorities. Trust is essential. Our purpose is not to publicly denounce authorities for any shortcomings. Rather, we’re there to improve the treatment of detainees and help deal with any problems.

We note problems during our visits to places of detention. We share our analysis with authorities such as prison directors, prosecutors, and the ministry. Those people must take appropriate action. We regularly submit reports to authorities in order to maintain confidential dialogue.

A detainee

François Xavier 

François Xavier

“My name is François Xavier. I have seven children, including a set of twins. My eldest son is an apprentice car electrician.

I come from the western part of Côte d’Ivoire. Ten months ago, I was detained after a land dispute in the area. Since I’m still awaiting trial, I can’t be granted a presidential pardon. That can be granted only to convicts.

I’ve been assigned to the "registration desk" of the prison infirmary. When newcomers are sent for their medical check-up, I record their height and weight. Those who are sick, dehydrated or injured are seen by the doctor. Some arrive at the infirmary without soap, or a sponge, or a towel, or anything. I sometimes have to supply them with these items. They’re also given pieces of cloth, because there aren’t any bed sheets.

We don’t have enough cleaning supplies. No gloves and not enough brooms. Every inch of the infirmary is cleaned daily with a mop and bleach. After a busy day, our shift ends at 7 p.m.

Today, I helped unload the truck and distribute hygiene items sent to us by the ICRC. It isn’t enough, but it’s better than nothing.”

François Xavier is being held in the Maison d'arrêt et de correction in Abidjan.


The ICRC supports all prisons in Côte d’Ivoire by providing basic hygiene supplies. Items include brooms, brushes, buckets, cleaning products, and soap. Hopefully, prison administrators will have the budget next year to purchase these supplies themselves. On 11 October, the ICRC delivered supplies to the Maison d’arrêt et de correction. It is the largest prison in Côte d’Ivoire with a total of 4,700 detainees.

Marina Perria, ICRC protection officer

Marina Perria 

Marina Perria

Marina Perria conducts regular visits to Abidjan’s Maison d’arrêt et de correction. She describes one form of aid that the ICRC provides for prison authorities.

"Every two months or so we send a truck filled with hygiene items to the Maison. We verify every item that’s unloaded and hand over cleaning products, brooms, mops, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows, and soap to prison authorities. The supplies are then divided up between the different sections of the prison.

In cases like this one where the authorities are struggling to meet the basic needs of detainees, the ICRC may step in. But it takes such action only in exceptional circumstances. We have neither the training nor the resources to replace the prison authorities."