Abidjan prison (MACA) is the largest facility in the country, and the population is over three times the prison’s capacity. David D. was held there for 29 months on remand. Today, he is on parole and still awaiting trial. Arbitrary detention, inhumane and degrading treatment, and the fight for justice: this is David’s testimony about his imprisonment.
I only underwent a pat-down search. The others were subjected to a humiliating strip search in front of everyone.
I only underwent a pat-down search. The others were subjected to a humiliating strip search in front of everyone. One morning, at around 9 am, my wife came to see me in my room. She told me the police were there. They took everything from us: computers, cables, printers, everything. They promised that we’d be home the same evening… but I knew that that was a lie. After four days in police custody, we were finally able to see our lawyer. We were referred to the Abidjan prosecutor’s office. We were accused of fraud and illegal public offerings. We pleaded not guilty. They only wanted to get money out of us. They didn’t care about anything else.
We were told that we were going to be imprisoned at Abidjan prison (MACA). We were taken there in a truck, as if we were cattle. It is dangerous and illegal to transport people in conditions like that. Upon arriving at the prison, I was surprised that we were met by a platoon standing to attention.
I got off the truck and went straight to be searched. I was lucky that, since I am a foreigner, I only underwent a pat-down search. The others were subjected to a humiliating strip search in front of everyone. So, I managed to keep my phone’s SIM card in my pocket. The inhumane treatment began in the prison truck, a cargo truck converted for transporting prisoners. But it was the strip search that let you know you were in danger when you entered the prison.
The prison governor asked me if I was French. I told him I was, and then, I was directly transferred to the assimilated block. I think somebody must have told him about my situation. The assimilated block is where foreigners and executives or company directors are locked up in the Ivory Coast. They are the privileged ones.
I was put in a cell with another Frenchman. There were three or four of us per cell, which was more comfortable than the others’ living arrangements. The other prisoners gave me food, a makeshift blanket, and a five-centimetre-thick foam mattress. I could feel the planks through it, but it was better than nothing.
Everyone had a phone, the guards let them be in exchange for cash. It is best not to stick your nose in the guards’ bribery, they’ll come for you if you do. Every Friday, they got their petty cash for the weekend. I am against corruption, so at first, I didn’t have access to a phone.
My comments and opinions did not go down well with the other prisoners. I had little support. Eventually, I ended up finding allies: only one on whom I could rely unconditionally, and a dozen others in a discreet way.
The cells were opened around 6 am, and we were allowed to leave. We cooked our own food. There is a roofed garden for prisoners from the assimilated block. Most of the taps have no running water. We had to carry buckets of water upstairs and then, wash in an enclosed shower. Since we were allowed to work on our cells, we put wooden partitions around the toilet.
Everyone can wake up when they want. One of my fellow prisoners suffered from insomnia. We were as quiet as possible in the mornings, as to not disturb his sleep. In the evenings, we tried to cook ourselves a good meal with ingredients from the outside.
The food inside the prison is toxic, and in any case, not enough. Many prisoners who eat the prison food, the prison rations, get sick. Beriberi disease is very common. The infirmary hands out medicines haphazardly, and they are not always effective. It is best to just avoid getting sick.
Everything tastes burnt, it’s overcooked. You have to sort through the food they give you to find what is edible and what isn’t. At least the assimilated block is spared the prison food. However, it is set aside for the ‘assistants’; they are prisoners from other wards who come in to do maintenance work, cleaning, cooking, or laundry.
There is not much to do during the day. There is a small field where you can play football, five against five, when the prisoners from the other wards return to their cells. The assimilated prisoners are allowed to stay outside for a while and do some exercise or go for a walk in the yard in the evening. That is where I was told stories about MACA, the country, and the former prisoners. It passed the time. We were allowed to go out and talk with other prisoners. We tried not to make any noise, because that too, was a privilege paid to the guards.
We sat and talked to each other about our jobs. I met a civil engineer in construction, a naval engineer, a Canadian businessman. We discussed work, travel, culture, or food; anything that let me escape for a while was welcome. We knew that there would be no justice and that all we had to do was pay the judges to get out and then everything would be over. So, talking about justice was useless. It is clear to me that it is useless to fight about the merits of the case, but that I can do something about the form. That is why I pressed the guards and the judges for procedural errors. Sometimes, even if the prisoners do pay, they are not freed.
They fed us very badly, left us to rot, and stopped us from communicating with the outside world.
As I didn’t have a phone, I couldn’t call anyone. There is no phone box inside the prison. I was on remand; I was not convicted. They kept me with the convicts. Out of 71 prisoners in the assimilated building, only 15 had been convicted. The system abuses pre-trial detention. I was only able to get a phone in November, two months after I first arrived. I knew that I needed someone on the outside to send me money. They fed us very badly, left us to rot, and stopped us from communicating with the outside world.
I asked a friend to contact my partner’s children, to find out if everything was okay. It was difficult for them. They were having a hard time with their mother’s imprisonment. They had truly believed that we would be back soon.
In March 2022, I was summoned to court several times. My hearing was the last, I waited all day. It was exhausting: nobody gives you food, they leave you in a dirty, smelly place. The standing ride in cargo truck was torture. They presented me with the release order, with the condition that I pay a hefty fee. It was illegal, I refused to sign. I asked for immediate release and left without saying another word.
The next day, I was told that my release order had arrived. When they asked me to go to the clerk’s office to sign the documents, I realised that it was still a conditional release, which was subject to payment, that had been stapled on. I had no choice: they threw me out with my clothes, no money, outside, all alone.
Today, I am not allowed to leave Ivorian territory. My father died in June 2022 and I could not return to France. The trial is stalled, they are dragging things out to bury the case. They hope I will die before then, because from now on, I am on the outside and I risk my life every single day.
Interviewed by Jeanne Ulhaq
Translated by Michelle Casas and proofread by William Avery Hudson