Elise Maillot is 30 years old. She has been visiting prisons for the last two years. She was in Madagascar, her home country, at the end of 2018. There, she visited the Manjakandriana prison for women. Prison Insider asked her three questions.
Prison Insider: Before you visited Madagascar, did you know about the prison conditions there?
Elise Maillot. Honestly, I did not know much. Given the widespread crisis in the country, I imagined the prison conditions would be unbearable, as I had read in Amnesty International’s October 2018 report about prisons in Madagascar Punished for Being Poor denouncing the “inhumane prison conditions”.
"Prisons are considered as a collective and disgraceful shame"
PI: What did you observe when you visited Manjakandriana prison?
EM. Sixty-three women between the ages of 21 and 72 are jailed in Manjakandriana, serving sentences between six months and life imprisonment. I had mixed feelings after my visit there: these women who are obviously isolated and living in a difficult situation also have a kind of freedom that allows them to keep in touch with the society.
First of all, their isolation is geographical. Manjakandriana – which means “the suzerain reigns” - is a metropolitan town located 55 km east of Antananarivo, in a mountainous area with rugged terrain. After a six-hour road trip to Tamatave, I could see the prison, located at the end of a steep road next to the city.
Then, and above all, their isolation is societal. Most of the prisoners are abandoned by their husbands, which is a difficult situation to handle when you are in prison.
In general, these female prisoners end up losing contact with their family members because prisons are considered as a collective and disgraceful shame. There is a strong appreciation for collective honour in Madagascar. When a family member is honoured for a particular reason, every member of his family shares the same honour. The same goes if a member is dishonoured. Hence, the family generally keeps imprisonment a secret and finds other reasons to justify the absence of the jailed person. So, the person is not visited frequently by their family, who claim that they have brought disgrace on them.
Despite this situation, inmates in Manjakandriana enjoy some freedom of movement, which gives them minimal interaction with the outside world. Prisoners are placed in two dormitories - with toilets for each side - and can go out of there between 7am and 5pm. The day begins with prayer, domestic chores, gardening and basket weaving. Prisoners can also leave the prison freely to go to Manjakandriana village market, mostly to sell their baskets. They even jokingly revealed to me that no one has tried to escape yet!
PI: What differences did you see between this prison and the ones you visit in France?
EM. There are quite a few remarkable differences. Freedom of movement, as mentioned earlier, especially outside the prison, is one of them.
I also observed that no isolation scheme was in place. The main punishment in place is that when prisoners misbehave, they are prevented from communicating with their loved ones. In these cases, the director does not allow punished inmates to make phone calls.
Even though in theory the inmates can have their children with them until they are 3 years old, they actually keep them until they are released.
Four children, a boy and three girls, live in the Manjakandriana women’s prison. They go to school every morning and come back there in the evening. This situation is impossible to imagine in France.
However, despite its shortcomings, I think Manjakandriana prison is an exception compared to other prisons in Madagascar. Female inmates enjoy some autonomy and freedom of movement. The relationship they have with the prison administration is quite satisfactory. Moreover, there seems to be not much difference with the living conditions outside the prison, considering the poor standard of living in Madagascar.
For more information
ORGANISATION Amnesty International published a report in 2017 on prison conditions in Madagascar. It described an alarming situation and an excessive use of pre-trial detention. Here is an extract of the document’s introductory preface
“The unjustified, excessive, prolonged and otherwise abusive use of pre-trial detention in Madagascar has continued unabated for decades and has impacted negatively on the effective functioning of the criminal justice system.. (…) Contrary to both its international legal obligation and its own laws providing that pre-trial detention is an exceptional measure, Madagascar’s prisons hold more people who have not been convicted than those found guilty. As of October 2017, 55% or more than half of the total prison population were pre-trial detainees. Unjustified, excessive and lengthy use of pre-trial detention violates the rule of law, contributes to overcrowding of detention facilities, wastes public resources, and endangers the health and the rights of detainees, families and communities.
Madagascar’s prolonged pre-trial detention violates a range of human rights, including the right to liberty, presumption of innocence, and to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. In fact, the miserably poor conditions of detention in which pre-trial detainees are held clearly amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
While the majority of pre-trial detainees were men (89%), affected more directly by the lengthy and inhumane conditions of detention and the severe overcrowding, women (6%) and children (5%) were disproportionately affected by some of its consequences through gender-based and aged-based violations. For example, pregnant women and women with babies do not have access to appropriate healthcare. Children often do not have access to any educational or vocational activities, in violation of Madagascar’s own laws. The pretrial detention rate amongst women and children has increased at a worrying rate over the past ten years.