Claiming rights in Yaoundé Central Prison

Marie Morelle

Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations

The end of the 20th century saw human rights spread on a vast scale thanks to the strengthening of public international law, the creation of new education programmes, the dissemination of indicators and standards, and the proliferation of experts, ‘professionals’, and programmes (Goodale and Merry 2007). Ultimately, the term ‘human rights’ reflects a range of places, discourses, projects, practices, labels, and ideologies, which have led to discussions of its political and emancipatory dimension (Allen 2013), as well as its widely recognised technologisation (Hibou 2011). In this context, prisons have become one of the pillars for the spread of human rights, helping to (re)build and consolidate the rule of law, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet bloc and those commonly referred to as the ‘global South’ (Bouagga 2016; Jefferson and Gaborit 2015; Martin 2013).

Cameroon is among the African states to have, on two occasions, adopted conventions aimed at improving detention conditions, working with the European Union (EU), the main agent of prison reform in Africa (Colineau 2013).1 On each occasion, the diagnosis was of ‘widespread dysfunction of the judicial system’, but emphasis was placed first and foremost on overpopulation in the central prisons, and particularly on individuals being held in pre-trial detention for ‘abnormally long lengths of time’.[1] [2] A core focus of each of the two programmes was to improve access to the law from within prison. Also noteworthy are reforms to the penal code and the code of criminal procedure, and the existence of organisations, associations, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) working in Cameroonian prisons to improve access to health, education, and the law (Morelle et al. 2018). More or less explicitly, all of these projects aim to reform the functioning of the legal system and access to the law, disseminate human rights, and expand their material presence in prisons. As a consequence, we should reflect on their objectives, instruments, and effects: Do they aim to introduce certain rights (to food, visits, care) into spaces where individuals are deprived of them in order to improve their lives and, perhaps, guarantee their survival? Or do they aim to give prisoners rights, understood as the ability to speak out and participate in life within the prison and to have recourse to legal action, potentially in the face of the violence and arbitrary' abuses of power that are common in all prisons, in Cameroon and elsewhere (Chantraine and Kaminski 2008)?

Prison can act as a support for political demands. Prisoners may protest their incarceration as being politically motivated, for example, during the repression of independence movements in Cameroon. Lawyers have participated in the spread of a ‘political defence strategy' based on a legal approach’ (Terreta 2015, p. 37). In the 1950s, the Cameroonian nationalist cause was helped by the documentation and denunciation of arbitrary' arrests, judicial proceedings, and incarcerations. In subsequent decades, under the presidencies of Ahmadou Ahidjo and Paul Biy'a, prison has become a focus of media attention through the speech of people who are viewed as political prisoners (Morelle 2019).

In other geographical contexts, however, prison itself may be the subject of critical discourse, one related to a broader perspective of social and political change (Artieres and Lascoumes 2004; Salle 2009). The modalities of punishment and the factors used to determine sentences are challenged, with prisoners claiming themselves to be subjects of law. They therefore present some of their demands and actions in legal terms. Scholars generally agree that this recourse to the law, as an instrument of emancipation (Israel 2009), is performed by explicitly politicised prisoners. But what about common-law prisoners, whose uses of the law are often overlooked by reform programmes and may even be ignored or held in contempt by certain institutional actors (Thomas, Keeler, and Harris 1986; Rostaing 2007; Durand 2014; Bouagga 2015)?

This chapter focuses on prisoners’ uses of the law, based on ethnographic research conducted in Yaounde Central Prison.[3] To what extent do certain prisoners resort to legal practices and to language borrowed from the law? What institutions do they use these with, and to what ends? The courtroom is not the only arena where one can learn about one’s rights and make them heard. Beyond the law, there exists a process of reappropriation, not only of criminal law itself, but of the register of human rights. This creates tensions with prison officials, in particular guards, and we must try to understand the social significance of this. Prisoners develop a language of rights (Minow 1987, p. 1862; Hornberger 2011) to conceive and protest the injustices they experience in prison, much like how guards reappropriate discourses of human rights reforms and training, a phenomenon observed and analysed by Martin (2014). In a context in which pressure exists to consolidate the rule of law, this language enables a more finegrained analysis of the relationship between subalterns and institutions (Baudot and Revillard 2017).

The contemporary literature, particularly in political science, frequently characterises the Cameroonian state in terms of its low level of institutionalisation (Morelle and Planel 2018; Eboko and Awondo2018). Public institutions embody spaces where public goods can be monopolised through corrupt agreements that benefit state officials or coalitions of public and private actors. Numerous scholars emphasise the informal dimension of the prison system and the judiciary in Cameroon and in neighbouring countries (Garces, Martin, and Darke 2013; Martin, Jefferson, and Bandyopadhyay 2014; Le Marcis 2014; Morelle 2014; Macauley 2017). In this context, what value is there in the law and in access to the law? This question is especially pertinent given the paradox in conceiving of prison (in Cameroon and elsewhere) as supporting a language of law, when the institution often appears to be a site of‘lawlessness’ (Rostaing 2007, p. 578).[4]

Should the authoritarian dimension of the regime and the arbitrariness inherent in prison life exclude law as a normative reference point for social relations and relations with the state (Mann 2009; Saada 2002; Bayart 2008)? In order to meet the demands of international sponsors, Cameroon has begun a series of justice and prison reforms, supporting the hypothesis that there exists a culture of legality at the level of public institutions (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). Is this a mere performance by the state? Such reforms have also been carried out by magistrates, lawyers, senior civil servants, and NGOs, all of them potential channels for disseminating human rights and criminal law, to the benefit of prisoners. It seems unhelpful, then, to immediately reject the question of the relationship that prisoners have to the law (criminal procedure, punishments, and so on) and to human rights. How- do they use them? For what purposes? As part of what processes of subjectivation? Are prisoners forced to only develop tactics that lie on the margins of legality in order to access justice and the state? Can we recognise them as subjects of their rights, and so as actors in prison reform, without excessively romanticising their potential resistance? At the very least, can we show- that prisoners are aware of having rights and that they try to assert them through letters and through certain relationships with institutions in spite of their status as prisoners, or perhaps because of it, since it creates familiarity with the law- (the rules) and justice (the institution), leading them to demand protection from the state, and rights more generally (Ew-ick and Silbey 1998)?[5]

I begin by describing the various justice and prison reforms that have been undertaken since the 2000s and the actors involved in them. Is prison conceived of in Cameroon as a ‘public problem’? In what terms, and in pursuit of what projects, can the question of prisoners’ rights be expressed? Many prisoners seem to be poorly equipped to face the judicial and penitentiary institutions. Still, some do, and in the second part of the chapter, I discuss the representations and uses of criminal law by certain prisoners. I aim to identify the appropriations in existence (Olivier de Sardan 2008), the practices of intermediation between the courts and prisoners in all their ambiguity, as well as prisoners’ interpretations of human rights and how such interpretations become a means of legitimating some of their strategies and demands.

Allowing access to the law or ‘emptying the prisons’?

The number of inmates in Cameroon’s prisons is increasing,[6] [7] leading to significant overpopulation in the majority of its prisons.

This explains the desire of certain funders - transmitted through the national actors involved in the prison service - to begin to reform the penal system. This has led to the gradual, intermittent emergence of prisons as an issue on the national political agenda.

Legislative and material reform

Amnesty International has published four reports on Cameroon’s prisons in the 2010s (2009, 2015, 2016, 2017). With anti-crime and anti-terror campaigns in the Lake Chad Basin and on the border with the Central African Republic, the International Committee of the Red Cross has increased its activities in the country. Meanwhile, small associations - some of them local, and often belonging to religious orders - continue to work in certain prisons on various issues: access to care, parenthood in prison, labour, and the incarceration of minors, although they do not always participate in writing appeals regarding incarceration conditions.

Each year, the Ministry of Justice publishes a report on the state of human rights in Cameroon, at least one chapter of which deals with detention conditions and the functioning of the judicial system. The state also has a Directorate of Human Rights and International Cooperation.

168 Morelle

The prison population of Cameroon

Figure 12.1 The prison population of Cameroon.

Prisons and the justice system more broadly are presented as sectors exhibiting dysfunctions that must be resolved, leading to the production of reports and action plans. When these come from the authorities, they must express and justify Cameroon’s efforts to embrace at least the basics of the rule of law. They ultimately function as a criterion through which to assess the state’s efforts.

The partnership between the EU and the Cameroonian authorities developed especially during the 2000s. PACDET I was a pilot project, focusing solely on the central prisons of Douala and Yaounde. PACDET II had greater financial and geographical scope and was meant to cover all 10 of the country’s central prisons.[8] The situation has been clear since 2001:

This overpopulation is one manifestation of the widespread dysfunction of the judicial system. Cameroonian prisons are overcrowded with inmates being held in pre-trial detention for abnormally long lengths of time. ... Many [inmates] die of diseases and malnutrition during their time in prison. Prisoners are often illiterate and ill-informed and, receiving no counsel, remain unaware of their rights.[9]

At the same time, the EU delegation to Cameroon was careful to stress the state’s desire to reform the judicial and prison systems:

Reform of the judicial system is ... one component of the medium-term Programme national de gouvernance (PNG) [National Governance Programme] set out by the president. ... The authorities have shown interest in strengthening the ability of civil society' to intervene in the domain of human rights, reducing bottlenecks in the courts, and applying existing law more strictly, particularly with regard to pre-trial detention.[9]

Consequently, PACDET I and II aimed in particular to reduce ‘the dysfunctions and abuse relating to pre-trial detention’[8] [8] by disseminating to pre-trial detainees information about their rights; enabling access to legal representation; insisting that prisoners be released when entitled; and finally reducing the duration of pre-trial detention, which should also have an impact on detention conditions. These were the ‘objectively verifiable indicators’11 of the programmes (creation of a prison data bank, revision of the code of criminal procedure, etc.), which were initially aimed at the central prisons in Douala and Yaounde, subject to the cooperation of the Cameroonian authorities.

While the EU was authorised to evaluate the functioning of the legal system in Cameroon when the convention was launched, and while one condition for the projects was broader structural reform, it appears that the success of the PACDET programmes can be boiled down to the fulfilment of a number of technical criteria. Above all, they sought to bring pre-trial detainees to sentencing and get them out of prison by placing lawyers at their disposal who were paid as part of the PACDET projects (particularly PACDET II) - that is, they aimed to streamline judicial w'ork (Colineau 2014, p. 255) - potentially leading to the depoliticisation of the reform.

In 2003, midway through PACDET I, a monitoring report[13] concluded that the programme:

will only result in a one-off attempt to raise awareness and defend a number of detainees, without improving the way that the prison and judicial systems w'ork in the long term. ... Reducing the backlog of cases appears to be more important than reducing the prison population. The [technical assistant] wishes to ensure that, before the programme ends, there will be no more inmates in the Douala or Yaounde prisons wiiose warrant for detention is older than one year. If this goal is achieved - and everything suggests that it will be - the PACDET will have a one-off but clear impact on the dysfunction of the prison system.

The expected outcome of the report is ambiguous, as it emphasises that the programme will have a strictly one-off impact on the prisons ofYaounde and Douala, with the sole goal of reducing congestion in prisons in the short term, even though the EU w'as seeking sustained change of the penal system. Could PACDET I have aimed to structurally impact the penal process? A plan w'as formed to create legal advice centres, in partnership with the bars of the cities involved in the project, and to provide associations with training on prisoners’ rights. But this did not come to pass. The final evaluation of PACDET II,[14] which w'as carried out by an external body, calls for the legal aid system that w'as established on a one-off basis to be made permanent, once the appropriate contracts were drawn up with the lawyers involved, in order to continue the fight against excessive time spent in pre-trial detention.

‘Our case was postponed’

Do prisoners know the law? What representations do they have of their rights? When the codes are strictly applied, the duration of pre-trial detention cannot exceed certain legal limits, which are determined by the nature of the offence. This provision alone should enable large numbers of prisoners to demand their immediate release before the courts. Why do so many prisoners fail to do so? According to the magistrates I spoke with, it is because they do not know their rights.

During my research in Yaounde Central Prison and in the poorer neighbourhoods of the city, I found that some prisoners and former prisoners knew how to negotiate with the police and the brigades in their neighbourhoods in order to persuade them to look the other way regarding illegal activities. But they admitted that they did not know what role to play in front of a prosecutor or a judge. One expression recurred in the interviews: ‘Our case was postponed’. With the new code of criminal procedure, the initial inquiry period and the trial itself were both lengthened, as there now exists an obligation to hear each individual serving as a witness. But there is only a limited number of courtrooms, and just a single truck to collect the prisoners each morning. Consequently, sessions begin, at best, at 11 a.m. As a result, the judges themselves admit that they have to split up each case in order to allow the whole body of cases to progress in some small way each month. After hearing an expert or a witness, the judge will delay the case until the next month, when they will either continue with the trial or take it under advisement. For many first-time defendants, the whole procedure is incomprehensible. One former prisoner, who had been arrested with five others during a police raid, recounted his experience:[15]

We were sent to the public prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor made me sign a warrant for pre-trial detention. He told me that there was no time, that I should sign it, and that I should come back to the office on Monday. It was 11 p.m. He didn’t have time. Ours was a six-person case. He said that the court would say who’s innocent. I went back to jail. ... On Monday, I came back to the office, to the district court. They didn’t ask me any questions. They just asked me: ‘Do you plead guilty or not guilty?’ I said, ‘Not guilty’. They postponed our case for another month. We went back to prison. We came back a month later. They asked me the same question: ‘Do you plead guilty or not guilty?’ They postponed the case again. It was postponed nine times. After seven months, they postponed it twice, for two weeks each time. The tenth time I went to the prosecutor’s office, they released me. They never asked me any other questions.

(Iinterview, Yaounde 2013)

The former prisoners I interviewed in one of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods all said some version of this:

When you get to the prosecutor’s office, they stop investigating. All they do is postpone your case. They postpone it, they postpone it, they postpone it. It’s not right. You do five years in prison and all they do postpone your case. It’s not right.

(Interview, Yaounde 2013)

At the same time, prisoners say that they no longer have confidence in NGOs, some of which they see as having only a short-term presence. One prisoner met with investigators who had been authorised to enter the prison, but as the years passed and he remained incarcerated, he refused to place his trust in them again. Prisoners, often serving lengthy sentences, have seen lawyers focus on those in pre-trial detention, as part of their work on PACDET II, but fail to meet with members of the ‘right’ category, i.e., the defendants.

But the presence of lawyers and NGOs in prisons, along with the media attention paid to certain reports and appeals, should encourage scholars to study the possibility that legal discourse (about criminal law and criminal procedure) and (human) rights discourse has spread to prisoners themselves. We should not conclude that the actors who initiated these programmes were unaware of this possibility, conscious as they are of the political and institutional roadblocks, and nonetheless committed to the spread of laws and human rights. These actions are not just a ‘performance’ by a handful of reformers but may become a normative register appropriated by prisoners themselves (Allen 2013), among others, in the service of a form of self-assertion.

In fact, prison leaves a mark on the experience of many inhabitants of Yaounde, where they have learned to live on the margins of legality in order to survive (Morelle 2018). With the daily uncertainty of city life and the insecurity of existence in prison, the inhabitants of poorer neighbourhoods - either incarcerated themselves or close to someone in prison - gradually develop a knowledge of penal institutions, one that is attached to a discourse about rights. Some individuals do not understand the law, but others do achieve a relative and gradual knowledge of its rules. During their criminal careers (or those of their friends and relatives), some successfully master this body of knowledge and practices, allowing them to constitute themselves as subjects of the law and holders of rights, in spite of the relations of domination within which their experiences as citizens and prisoners are inscribed. We now turn to the resources that some prisoners possess, and how they develop a language about the law during their lives in the city and in prison, in response to the complexity of criminal procedure.

Prison: A place to learn one’s rights Accessing the law and claiming one's rights

Once sentenced, the prisoner’s relationship to the law may change. Due to the length of their sentence, or due to the unyielding hope that they might get out, some prisoners may take an interest in the rules that govern their incarceration and whether they may appeal or take their case to the Supreme Court. Court records show substantial correspondence from prisoners, addressed to the prison service or to judges, regarding requests to be transferred to other prisons, appeals, retrials, commuted sentences, concurrent sentences, etc.[16]

In prison, ‘public writers’ and ‘lawyers’ emerge from among the prisoner population: fellow prisoners consult them in order to decide what direction to take and engage them to produce beautifully written letters full of polite, ingratiating language. This mass of letters testifies to a particular relationship with the state - in this case, with the judicial and prison systems - in the daily lives of those who are confronted with it, both prisoners and their families. To some extent, the emergence of informal advisers among the inmates counteracts their unequal access to the law. These ‘lawyers’ form a link between the dense universe of codified rules and the informal tactics used for survival in prison. They make the procedures at least partially intelligible (Milovanovic and Thomas 1989) to other inmates who may be illiterate. They are felt to be competent to properly address institutions, and to be legitimate to do so. This is one of the missions of the prisoners’ association of Yaounde Central Prison, whose representatives are elected from among the inmates, and which is authorised by the prison administration to develop supposedly socio-cultural activities. These ‘lawyers’ were not involved professionally in the legal system before their incarceration. Most, how- ever, possessed social capital (ability to read and write, secondary education at a minimum), had been in prison for a number of years, and were able to negotiate favours (a bed, a cell, the ability to move around the prison) on the basis of the long time they had spent in the prison and their financial means. How' did they come to learn the rudiments of law and criminal procedure?

Those who are taken by truck to the courthouse every morning spend entire days attending the trials of other prisoners as they wait to be taken back to the prison in the evening. These hearings offer a form of introduction to the law, where prisoners reveal themselves to be masters in the art of contradicting their previous assertions in order to blame their accomplices and to tty to clear themselves. Courts are also w here one can recruit professional lawyers. The vast majority of prisoners cannot afford their services, but they are absolutely necessary, particularly for long sentences. For those sentenced to death, representation is required by law. Hearings therefore allow prisoners to observe these lawyers and to judge how effective their arguments and attitudes are. If they are impressed, and if they have the resources, prisoners may ask their families to request those lawyers’ services. NGOs also w'ork to raise awareness of the law, leaving copies of the penal code in the prison library. In the prison records office, discussions between guards and newly arrived prisoners enable the circulation of the law' in practice. While the prison records office is a space of dispossession, it is also a space of socialisation, w'here guards sometimes give advice to prisoners. Guards are familiar with trials and procedures. They may also provide opinions about particular judges’ integrity and severity. Guards thus embody the law and offer prisoners guidance about the stances they should adopt towards certain judges.

Education levels and family support are undeniably important, but the length of time spent in prison, the duration of the sentence, and the relations that a prisoner forms during incarceration also affect how prisoners claim their rights (Rostaing 2007). Bouagga (2015, p. 16) writes: ‘External resources, accumulated experience, and the ability to mobilise different intermediaries - all of these produce different relationships with the law’. Of course, it is important to distinguish between prisoners’ different life journeys, as not ever)' prisoner makes successful use of the law. One prisoner, growing old in prison, came from a region very distant from Yaounde and was cut off from all contact with his family. He spoke only Fula. His sentence had been commuted from life imprisonment to 20 years, but he did not understand whether this meant that a new counter would begin from zero: Was he going to have to spend another 20 years in prison? Moreover, many of the letters written by the prison ‘lawyers’ are very cliched, pastiches of the law they are supposed to address, bringing in a profit for the letter’s author but may or may not having any influence higher up. In this respect, the positions of these intermediaries differ from those of human rights activists, for whom imprisonment may have been a driving force in their struggle and a reason for their interest in prisoners’ rights.

In general, however, under the influence of the media, NGOs, and churches, a w'hole discourse about human rights is spreading in prison. This has been seized on by certain prisoners in order to attack, rather indiscriminately, the absence of lawyers, the violence of the guards, institutional corruption, and, more pragmatically, the dilapidation of detention facilities and the meagre food rations provided. They levy' these charges in conversations with visitors from NGOs and by attempting to publish articles in the local and national press. Studying the experience of those in prison, we do not just observe a certain ability to use the law to benefit one’s own legal case. There is also a desire to put incarceration on the public agenda, to make it a collective issue that goes beyond the courts, by using a broader register involving human rights.

Because there is no prison code,[17] and because of the absence of internal regulations, prisoners constantly negotiate with guards and fellow inmates over the right to beds, cells, visits, appeals, and so on. Such negotiations may involve corruption and violence or may be the result of arrangements of proximity that arise during incarceration. Conflicts may exist between guards and prisoners. For example, one prisoner lodged a police complaint against a guard for harassing him, by assigning him to another ward as a punishment. Another prisoner brought an allegation of torture in prison to the Commission nationale des droits de l’homme et des libertes (National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms). These cases show that prisoners recognise the existence of institutional mechanisms that aim to defend their rights, even during their sentences. Although such steps are not always successful, the complaint against the guard, for example, led to mediation within the prison, to the benefit of the prisoner. Prisoners thus appropriate the register of human rights to decry prison conditions and informal rules. Human rights are seen as a resource to counter arbitrary abuses of power in detention, gain a degree of control when facing uncertain situations that are intrinsic to the prison world, and interact with the authorities beyond the expected official norms (Durand 2014).

The reappropriation and forgery’ of human rights

Researchers trying to capture the appropriation of human rights empirically have often written in terms of their indigenisation or vernacularisation (Martin 2014). Hornberger (2011, p. 10) describes the ‘forgery of human rights’ and calls on us to understand their role in the conflicts and tensions that exist in the relationship between the state and the most insecure parts of the population.17 She urges us to refrain from any romanticisation of the practices that lay claim to human rights.

In the process of translating and appropriating norms, and in the circulation of discourses and practices in the name of human rights and prison reform, it is important that we understand the value (Le Marcis 2019) given to the law and to knowledge of it, and how such knowledge is unequally distributed. And just as the value of such knowledge reveals power relations within prison, it also contributes to them. Gaining particular legal skills (understanding the law or how its institutions work) makes it possible to acquire status in prison, and potentially to receive payment for one’s services (for instance, the writing of letters). There is a certain level of inequality in negotiations around learning, networking, and accessing this empirical knowledge, as not everyone has the means to access these rights, even through informal prisoner channels.

A former prisoner, Eric,18 has become a legal intermediary between prison and the courts. He runs his own business, having trained in private and commercial law. His work consists of soliciting potential foreign investors, informing them of calls for tenders issued by the Cameroonian state, and supporting them in their work in Cameroon. His services are remunerated by foreign companies under assistance contracts. If negotiations are successful, his company obtains shares in any joint enterprise set up by the foreign investors and the Cameroonian government. He therefore has a very large network of contacts, which gives him access to the highest levels of the state, something that he has achieved, in particular, through his family links. This allows him to keep up to date with public contracts and to obtain meetings for foreign businesspeople. On one occasion, when a contract was not honoured by the investors, he was accused by the Cameroonian

  • 17 ‘Human rights have become a language of entitlement and conflict’ (Hornberger 2011, p.
  • 10).
  • 18 His name has been changed.

state of misusing public funds and spent two months in jail. The charges against him were soon dropped and he was able to walk free. Eric recognised that he was helped by the links between his family and certain magistrates, and now he focuses on public contracts involving the justice system, although he continues to use his family connections.

Since leaving prison, he has kept in contact with a prisoner who was serving a long sentence. This prisoner acts as intermediary, putting other prisoners in contact with Eric, who then meets with their families. Eric studies their cases and presents the situation to the magistrates handling the case (the judge and the prosecutor). A decision is made (to plead guilty, for example), and Eric informs the prisoner’s family. In exchange, he receives a sum of money, which he then transfers to the magistrates involved. Such briber)' allows a prisoner to then be possibly released. On occasion, Eric will look at the cases of prisoners who have been unable to put any money together. In such cases, he pleads with the magistrates to reduce the sentence or fine. Eric therefore exploits his knowledge of the law, his master)' of how the judicial system works, and his networks within the justice system (senior civil servants, magistrates), acquired through his family and through his personal and professional experiences. While he claims not to have profited himself (though I find this doubtful), he recognises that he has played the role of intermediary between prisoners and their families on the one hand and magistrates on the other, channelling thousands of CFA francs to the latter. He does therefore profit, both in financial terms and in terms of strengthening his social network.

The application of the penal code is subject to corrupt negotiations and transactions, as it is supported by a clientelist network in which professional and family connections play a major role. This can even extend to prisoners inside. Eric’s point of contact on the inside also profits from his work as a middleman: he is able to enjoy a higher status relative to his fellow inmates, make money, and play a role within the prison, fighting against the dynamic of alienation that is characteristic of the prison system. Eric exploited his professional experience as an economic intermediary to make it through his sentence and, ultimately, to find a place for his incarceration within his life trajectory. In his informal work as a middleman, giving someone access to the law is no longer part of a moral standard, nor is it driven by a desire to attack abuses of power within the penal system. Eric does not seeking to master the law, but to find ways to transgress and circumvent it, and to come to an arrangement with it. Nonetheless, in the context of a poorly institutionalised state and a day-to-day life marked by the large-scale informalisation of relations (Simone 2004), Eric, his representative in prison, and the prisoners who use his sendees all form channels of access to the state, its agents, and its resources, either by paying or by making use of their networks. They exploit, encourage, and produce loopholes, rather than remaining passive in the face of the domination of those who set the rules.

Another way of getting out of prison is to threaten to go to court and expose corruption. This was the case for a former prisoner I met in 2014, six months after he had left prison. He was a former businessman who had owned several large businesses (a garage, a bar, a hardware store, a hostel) and who had lived in Switzerland for several years. He was abruptly incarcerated, he claims, because of the jealousy of others, and it took five years before it was recognised that he was innocent and that his rights had been violated. He told me that was entirely helpless when he arrived in prison: he had no money and he found himself in one of the most overcrowded sections of the Yaounde Central Prison, nicknamed ‘Kosovo’ (Morclle 2013). He slept on the floor in the courtyard and was frequently beaten. He had to carry out chores, cleaning the toilets in the middle of the night. Stripped of his property, abused, and suffering from scabies, he had to confront his new status as a prisoner. Little by little, however, he got himself organised. His family learned how to avoid being cheated or conned by the guards. He began to be able to bring in money, and thus avoid doing chores. Finally, a former minister took notice of his case and got the prison director to transfer him out of‘Kosovo.’ After two years, he was assigned to the juvenile section, where he was partly responsible for prisoner education. During this time, he tried to resolve his situation, initially by using a range of corrupt practices. When these failed to provide any results, he decided to use his acquaintances to publish all the evidence of his attempts at corruption involving a number of magistrates who had accepted his money, his car, and his land, without resolving his situation. The publicising of this case, along with the lack of evidence against him, led to his release. While this prisoner’s social capital undoubtedly benefited him, he could not avoid the need to adapt to the rules of prison in some ways.


Cameroon’s penal system cannot be boiled down to corruption and coercion, although both are present. Nor can it be reduced to the words and programmes of the institutions attempting to reform it. It is also the product of tactics and ad hoc arrangements of those who experience it daily in the police stations, courts, and prisons. Researchers have paid much attention to transgressions of the rule of law through corrupt practices, but this should not exclude a study of prisoners’ relationship with the law and their rights that emerge in situations of constraint. Looking beyond how human rights are reflected in the articles of the new penal code and code of criminal procedure, we see that they also feed the practices and discourses not only of the agents of Cameroonian institutions or foreign sponsors, but also of prisoners. For some, such an appropriation of the law changes the meaning of their sentence, their relationship with the state, and their relationship to themselves.

It is therefore necessary for us to reach an empirical understanding of the prison ‘as is’ (Martin et al. 2014), with all of its functioning, tensions (Jefferson 2007), porosity, and ambiguities surrounding reformist discourse. The circulation of norms and ‘good practices’ brings about changes that are sometimes inconspicuous (Bouagga 2019) and informal: the production of a language of rights by prisoners is one of these elements. It is important to recognise the existence of this knowledge, acquired empirically through incarceration, hearings, meetings with NGOs, and reading in the library. Prisoners are not passive in the face of institutional reform projects, and they should not be excluded from them (for example, because it is initially seen to be more important to train prison staff), nor should they simply be on the receiving end of them. Prisoners are, instead, a resource and a medium for such reforms. Incarceration can be put to the test by those who undergo it, by translating their claims to rights into words and actions, but without overlooking the importance of inequalities among prisoners (Bosworth and Carrabine 2001).

Users of the law do not see it simply as a constraint emanating from the state, but also as a potential tool for limiting the state’s excesses. Legal resources are not limited to legislation to be applied (or circumvented); they also feed resistance and negotiations that play out in fields that may have nothing to do with the courts (Salle and Chantraine 2009, p. 117), for example, in an encounter with a violent prison guard. A gradual understanding of criminal law, against the broader backdrop of the spread of human rights, reveals how individuals confronted with the prison system define themselves relative to the state and its agents, how they negotiate their rights, and how they reappropriate a discourse about the rule of law. The period of incarceration, the production and circulation of a legal language, and the familiarisation with judicial practices: all of these encourage a discourse among prisoners that is based on their representation and appropriation of human rights. This reference to human rights runs through their relationships with other inmates, religious representatives, NGOs, lawyers, and guards, taking on multiple meanings (Hornberger 2011). The discourse of human rights has led to a discussion of the place of criminal law and human rights in prison, and of their effects in terms of subjectivation, understood as a process of rejecting an imposed identity as a prisoner, delinquent, and criminal. This observation invites us to attend to the performative effects of discourse on law and effective recourse to the law, and to understand how it is reappropriated. Systematic work should be done on knowledge of the law, recourse to the law, and social uses of the law, either as part of a research project or a reform project. We must recognise the role and knowledge of prisoners, and their friends and families, in this reform process, in the broadest sense. However, we must avoid an over-simplistic understanding: prisoners’ practices to game the law are also a question of distorting the law. Prisoners’ accusations focus especially on the judicial system, even though the failures of prison itself are serious and have been emphasised above all in reports by human rights NGOs. For this reason, prison reform cannot limit itself to improving incarceration conditions, rather, it must challenge the greater content and scope of punitive systems.


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  • [1] PACDET I (Programme d’amelioration des conditions de detention et respect des droits de1’homme; Programme for Improving Detention Conditions and Respect for Human Rights)was part of the Eighth European Development Fund (EDF), covering the period 2001-04.PACDET II was part of the Ninth EDF, covering the period 2006-09. Translator’s note:Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article areour own.
  • [2] Funding agreement between the Commission of the European Communities and the Republic of Cameroon, Programme d’amelioration des conditions de detention et respect des droitsde 1’homme (CM/7010/000), Eighth EDF, 2001.
  • [3] Between 2010 and 2012, I had permission to carry out research in Yaounde Central Prison.From 2013,1 was allowed to visit and interview certain prisoners. Additionally', I conductedsurveys among those who had left prison and were living in working-class neighbourhoodsin the capital (2014-15), and conducted interviews with prison guards (2010-15) and representatives of institutions and associations involved in prison and justice reform (2015-17).
  • [4] Cameroon does not have a body of prison law- as such.
  • [5] Minow (1987, p. 1867) writes: ‘“Rights” can give rise to “rights consciousness” so that individuals and groups may imagine and act in light of rights that have not been formally recog-
  • [6] nized or enforced. Rights, in this sense, are neither limited to nor со-extensive with preciselythose rules formally announced and enforced by public authorities’.
  • [7] The prison administration non-official reports a figure of 30,605 prisoners in 2017 (comparedto 23,196 in 2010). We should note the effect on the incarceration rate (115 prisoners per100,000 inhabitants in 2015) of the fight against Boko Haram since 2013, the response tothe social unrest in the southwest and northwest regions since 2016, and the repression of thesecessionist movement since 2017.
  • [8] Funding Agreement between the Commission of the European Communities and theRepublic of Cameroon, Programme d’amelioration des conditions de detention et respectdes droits de l’homme, phase 2 (PACDET II) (CM/002/04), Ninth EDF, 2006.
  • [9] Technical and administrative arrangements, Funding Agreement between the Commissionof the European Communities and the Republic of Cameroon, Programme d’ameliorationdes conditions de detention et respect des droits de l’homme (CM/7010/000), EighthEDF, 2001.
  • [10] Technical and administrative arrangements, Funding Agreement between the Commissionof the European Communities and the Republic of Cameroon, Programme d’ameliorationdes conditions de detention et respect des droits de l’homme (CM/7010/000), EighthEDF, 2001.
  • [11] Funding Agreement between the Commission of the European Communities and theRepublic of Cameroon, Programme d’amelioration des conditions de detention et respectdes droits de l’homme, phase 2 (PACDET II) (CM/002/04), Ninth EDF, 2006.
  • [12] Funding Agreement between the Commission of the European Communities and theRepublic of Cameroon, Programme d’amelioration des conditions de detention et respectdes droits de l’homme, phase 2 (PACDET II) (CM/002/04), Ninth EDF, 2006.
  • [13] Monitoring Report, PACDET, 2 July 2003.
  • [14] Final evaluation, PACDET II, 13 June 2011.
  • [15] This prisoner said that some of those arrested were in possession of cannabis, but he was not.
  • [16] Unfortunately, it was not possible to gain regular access in order to carry out a quantitativestudy.
  • [17] This is the case at the time of writing, despite the fact that it is provided for by the new codeof criminal procedure.
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