Colonial persistence in contemporary Burundian prisons

Prison inflation during Belgian colonisation went hand in hand with the multiplication of structures for prisoners and the development of texts regulating the regime to which they were subjected in prison. Looking at these two aspects of Burundian prison history, the colonial continuities in the contemporary period are obvious. However, one can also see that some of the principles governing the treatment of the punished were rooted in ancient tendencies that stimulated forms of coercion that were adjusted to local norms for what was acceptable.

Prison buildings: A Belgian colonial legacy

As early as 1918, the Resident of Urundi Regulations were adopted to launch the construction of prisons in the capitals of Ruanda and Urundi, and then of detention houses in each territorial district of the two countries (Wagner 1999, pp. 489-490). Some 15 years later, the coverage of prison construction over Burundi was established, drawing a prison geography and architecture that has changed little since then. The history of the cachets, however, shows more differences and deserves a study in its own right, following Wagner’s (1999) study of Rwanda. The chronic and arbitrary use of cachets in preventive detention from the 1920s to the present day has given Kirundi the term ‘agasho’, which refers to all places of confinement, from cachets to prison.[1] [2]

Returning to the prisons, a count allows us to identify 10 in service in 1933, in Bururi, Muhinga (now Muyinga), Muramvya, Ngozi, Rutana, Ruyigi, Rumonge, Nyanza-Lac, Kitega (capital of the Residence of Urundi), and Usumbura (seat of the Vice-Governorate of the Territory of Ruanda-Urundi). These locations are more or less the same as those of the 11 Burundian prisons in operation today,[3] as are the buildings. Most of these buildings were originally made of adobe and, given their limited capacity and unsuitability, they were enlarged or replaced over the decades.[4] The prisons of Rutana, Ruyigi, Ngozi, and Muramvya, for example, built in 1932, were rebuilt in 1946-1947 to accommodate about 100 inmates, with dormitories for the indigenes and a few individual cells for Europeans, Asians, or notables (RABRU 1933, 1948, 1949).

In Kitega, where in 1917 the Belgians had installed inmates in a house whose layout was conducive to disease,[5] a brand new ‘district prison’ was built in 1926 (RABRU 1928, p. 16). Constructed of stones and bricks in an architectural vein that would later be found elsewhere - in 1928, in Stanleyville in the Congo (now Kisangani) and in 1930 in Kigali in Ruanda - its configuration marked the separation of race, gender, and social status that the prison legislation promoted. It thus included, in addition to a refectory, a store, a guard house, and workshops, seven large dormitories for indigenes (including one for women), a dormitory for chiefs, and four cells for European or Asian prisoners (RABRU 1928, pp. 16-17). The building, which was designed for 230 prisoners and filled by the late 1920s, was enlarged to accommodate an additional 150 prisoners in 1938, but it quickly became congested again (AAB 3DG 1203). Expansion again brought its capacity to 400 prisoners in 1947 (RABRU 1948, p. 21), a level at which it remains to this day, without ever decreasing its occupancy rate.[6]

In Usumbura, the prison left by the Germans in 1919 was a simple ‘adobe house [with] worm-eaten woodwork, [and] infested with kimputus [ticks]’.[7] It took four years for the Belgian authorities to open a new facility in the nearby military camp, and another five years to admit that this facility, designed for 80 occupants, was unsuitable.[8] The construction of a ‘prison for Blacks’ in the capital of the Vice-Governorate of Ruanda-Urundi, which was deemed imperative in 1929, was finally completed in 1937 (RABRU 1930, p. 27,1937, p. 134). However, this 280-seat penitentiary (24 dormitories and two cells), located on the edge of a working-class district (Buyenzi), whose old buildings now house a criminal investigation department, was congested as soon as the Second World War ended. The additions to increase its capacity to 300 and then 350 detainees, from 1954, and the transfer of detainees to Kitega or contraints to a nearby military camp had only temporary effects.[9] Then, studies were launched to determine the location of a new prison complex capable of ‘feeding the detainees but also putting them to work’, while also keeping inmates away from the city', and avoiding health risks for them.[10] A site south of the city was chosen in 1958. The new central prison, built near the Mpimba River (hence its name today), was completed in 1959 and occupied from 1960 onwards (RABRU 1960). Designed for 450 individuals, it included, apart from its administrative and logistical parts, two dormitory blocks with 116 places for indigenous prisoners, 56 cells for non-indigenous people (Europeans, Asians, and notables), two quarters with 56 places for minors and women, and 44 cachots for disciplinary punishment.[11] At the same time and in a similar configuration, the central prison of Rumonge (Murembwe) was inaugurated (RABRU 1961, p. 245). These two prisons are still today the largest in the country, with now a capacity of 800 inmates thanks to the redesign of the dormitories and wards, but still largely overcrowded. The Bujumbura prison, for example, had an occupancy rate of nearly 510% in April 2020 (APRODH 2020, p. 25). Built at the time in an unoccupied space, today it is an essential landmark in the heart of the urban district of Musaga.

This reconstruction of the history of prison buildings makes it possible to understand the state of the current prison complex, which is made up of buildings between 60 and almost 100 years old, whose successive extensions and repairs in recent decades have certainly increased their capacity but have not succeeded in alleviating the decrepitude and discomfort, nor in putting an end to prison overcrowding. Since independence in 1962, apart from the Ngozi prison for men built in the 1980s and two re-education centres for juveniles in conflict with the law that were opened in 2015, no new prison facilities have been established. A ‘high security'’ prison had been built in 1993 in Kirundo, in the northeast of the country, but President Melchior Ndadaye, newly elected head of state and himself a former political prisoner, had it converted into a high school on the eve of its inauguration (Deslaurier 2019a, p. 50). Since then, other projects have come up against the reluctance of donors or the hostility of civil opinion, in a context where prisoners are far from being considered a priority' for public spending. The current capacity of prisons could be sufficient if minor or political offences were no longer punishable by imprisonment and if pre-trial detention remained exceptional, which is far from being the case.[12]

  • [1] In August 1956, the contraints (literally 'forced prisoners’, i.e., individuals sentenced tocoercion by body for non-payment of taxes), made up one-quarter of the number of inmatesin Usumbura prison (AAB GG 3572: Rapport d’inspection de la prison d’Usumbura, Usumbura, 10 September 1956). Nowadays, as a vestige of that time, the ward that is supposedto receive defendants at Mpimba is still called ‘Ikori’, which means ‘the tax’ in Kirundi(Mbonimpa 2017, p. 51).
  • [2] We might estimate 137 cachets in the country in 2020 (one in each of the 119 communesand 18 provinces), but civil society organisations counted up to 400 in 2011 (ACAT 2012,p. 39).
  • [3] The Nyanza-Lac prison ceased operations around 1950; the Bubanza prison was openedaround 1955 and is still in operation today (RABRU 1949, 1957). The colonial prison ofNgozi was dedicated to women after the construction of a new prison for men in the 1980s.
  • [4] The following items are taken from the RABRU as well as prison registers, punishmentbooks, prison inspection reports, and administrative correspondence kept at the AAB (BUR180, 184, 187, 188; GG 3571, 3572, 3582; 3DG 1203; Just 149A) and the ANB (AA andAB Kitega; AH Muhinga).
  • [5] AAB BUR 188: lettre du mcdecin-chcf Vcrmccrsch au Substitut de l’auditeur militaire,Kitega, 23 May 1917.
  • [6] AAB BUR 187 and 188: rapports d’inspection de la prison de Kitega, 1927-1953. Betweenthese dates, occupancy rates ranged from 111% to 200%. In April 2020, the rate was 328%(APRODH 2020, p. 24).
  • [7] AAB BUR 188: lettre du Resident Ryckmans au Commissaire royal i Kigoma, Usumbura,21 June 1919.
  • [8] These elements emerge from exchanges between the colonial authorities in the years 1919—1956 (AAB BUR 188 and 3DG 1203).
  • [9] Prison overcrowding in Usumbura has been constant since the 1930s, with occupancy ratesof 175% in November 1933, 141% in March 1949, and 157% in August 1956 (AB BUR187 and 188: rapports d’inspection de la prison d’Usumbura, 1933-1956).
  • [10] AAB BUR 187: ‘Emplacement de la prison de lore categoric’, note pour le Conseillerjuridique du VGGRU, Usumbura, 4 January 1958.
  • [11] ANB Gitega AB 325: ‘Maison d’arret d’Usumbura. Plan d’ensemble’, Usumbura, 6 November 1959.
  • [12] Interviews with X, programme officer at the Belgian Technical Cooperation, and P.-C.Mbonimpa, legal representative of the Association pour la protection des droits humains etdes personnes detenues (APRODH), Bujumbura, 6 January and 27 February 2015.
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