By Momodou Jarju
Dr. Lamin J. Sise, the chairman of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) has indicated that the Gambia’s prison service under the 22-year-rule of former Gambia President Yahya Jammeh was trapped in fear and incompetence.
“The Prison Service, like the rest of the country, was trapped in fear and incompetence during the twenty two years of the Jammeh era. For the greater part of that period, the highest academic qualification attained by prison officers was Secondary Four certificate,” he said in a statement read before the Commission resumed its hearing on Monday.
Dr. Sise said the deplorable conditions and violations and abuses committed in the prisons will be addressed in the final report of the Truth Commission with recommendations on how to remedy the situation.
Nonetheless, he said the Prison Service must not be used as a source of self-gratification for senior prison officials, or turned into a torture facility that defeats the rehabilitative function of a correction system.
Furthermore, TRRC Chairperson said the Prison Service must not be used as an open access detention facility for political opponents and security officers.
“Any person detained at a Gambian prison must go through due process and be admitted for detention through the appropriate procedures. Both prison officials, prisoners and other detainees have rights, and those rights must be fully respected. The rules and regulations pertaining to the operation of the prisons must be adhered to strictly, and at all times,” said chairperson Sise.
Chairman Sise said they started their institutional hearings during the Fourteenth Session of the public hearings of the Commission, focusing on the Prison System, specifically on the violations and abuses of the human rights of the prisoners and other detainees held at the three prisons in The Gambia.
He said past and present prison officials and staff; current and past prisoners and detainees as well as their family members or relatives were called to testify.
He said what emerged from the testimonies of these witnesses shocked the conscience of many Gambians.
“It was an outrage of extraordinary magnitude to hear the failures of the prison system and the violations and abuses of the human rights of prison inmates. It is clear from the evidence adduced before this Commission that the system utterly failed to address, inter alia, the following challenges:
(1) proper understanding by prison officials of the Prison Act that governs their institution,
(2) massive overcrowding in the facilities, especially the Remand Wing,
(3) poor quality food which many attributed to the cause of non-communicable diseases such as beriberi,
(4) theft by prison officers of food rations supplied to feed prison inmates,
(5)unlawful denial of access to and/or inadequate medical services for inmates with serious consequences and even death of prison inmates,
(6) poor and inhumane conditions of detention in the prison facilities,
(7) inadequate focus on mental health issues for prison inmates,
(8) unavailability of reform and rehabilitation programmes for inmates with the consequent effect of rendering the prison system as a mere warehouse to keep prisoners, and
(9) brutal torture and unlawful confinement practices, including unreasonably long detention of inmates in the Remand Wing.
Sise said many of the above challenges have resulted in neglect and even death of inmates while in custody.
Speaking further, Sise said on Thursday, June 25, 2020 the TRRC concluded its fourteenth three-week session of public hearings, during which 21 witnesses appeared before the Commission.
He said the total number of witnesses that appeared before the Commission since the commencement of the public hearings on January 7, 2019 is 241.
These included 59 women, 44 perpetrators, alleged perpetrators and adversely mentioned persons, as well as four expert witnesses.
Twenty five Gambian Diaspora witnesses also testified via video link.
Chairman Sise said it will return to hear the testimonies on the violations of rights of road users by Yahya Jammeh’s convoys that were suspended in March due to the Covid-19 Pandemic and hear the remaining witnesses who were already scheduled to testify.
The chairman added: “As we encountered during the Commission’s consideration of the themes on Sexual and Gender-based Violence and the former president’s witch hunting exercise, it has been equally challenging for the TRRC to get witnesses on the theme of Jammeh’s alternative HIV/AIDS treatment programme.”
Sise said this is understandable because of the social stigma associated with all these three issues.
However, he said the TRRC continues to encourage all victims of the former president’s activities, be it road users or the Alternative Treatment Programme, to come forward and share their stories with the Commission.
He assured the potential witnesses that their privacy and integrity will be respected and protected by the TRRC.
Meanwhile, the Commission continues to seek the public’s support and understanding as they go through a difficult journey of truth-seeking with regard to the human rights violations and abuses that occurred in The Gambia from July 1994 to January 2017.