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In Togo, prison visit ban keeps families apart

By AFP
18 November 2021   |   12:49 pm
David Adje has not seen his three younger brothers, all serving time in a Lome prison, since the Togolese government banned all jail visits 18 months ago to protect inmates from contracting Covid-19.

David Adje has not seen his three younger brothers, all serving time in a Lome prison, since the Togolese government banned all jail visits 18 months ago to protect inmates from contracting Covid-19.

The ban in effect since April 2020 has deprived families like Adje’s in the small West African state of contact with their jailed relatives, deepening worries about their welfare.

“I am devastated and in shock because I do not know what condition my brothers are in,” the 60-year-old commercial agent told AFP.

Justice Minister Pius Agbetomey last year said all prison visits would be banned until further notice, with exemptions granted only on a case-by-case basis.

For many Togolese, though, the ban now appears vastly disproportionate in view of the country’s Covid toll.

Togo has identified just 26,167 cases of Covid-19, 243 of them fatal, since the pandemic began, though those figures are likely low because of a lack of testing.

At the start of the pandemic in December 2019, many countries around the world banned visits to protect detainees, fearing rapid spread among inmates locked up in cramped spaces.

But most have since lifted the ban.

“Detainees are a special category of people whose isolation deserves solidarity and psychological support from their parents,” said Judge Aime Adi, director of Amnesty International in Togo.

“It is really time to reopen the prisons to bring some relief to detainees and their parents,” agreed Kao Atcholi, president of the Association of Victims of Torture in Togo (Asvitto).

In Togo, as in many African countries, visits are crucial for many detainees because they allow relatives to bring food, clothing and medicine.

Some relatives bring meals to incarcerated loved ones every day in Togo’s underfunded prison system.

“I don’t know if my relatives are sick,” said Aboubacar Amidou, who has six close relatives locked up in Lome’s civilian prison, arrested in the wake of major opposition protests in October 2017.

Before the ban, “the visits allowed me to cheer them up by regularly bringing food and medicine,” Amidou said.

Togo has been ruled since 2005 by Faure Gnassingbe, who came to power after the death of his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, who himself led Togo for 38 years.

An extra meal
The visitation ban also applies to NGOs and associations that provide assistance to detainees.

However, according to Ali Essoham, who manages a prison observers programme: “The parents of some detainees entrust us with parcels that we give to the officials of the prison administration.

“But we do not have access to the detainees,” he said.

Togo’s director of prison administration insists it is too soon to reopen prisons to visitors, citng Covid fears.

“The prison is an enclosed environment and it was important for the government to protect residents and prevent the rapid spread of the virus in our prisons,” Akibou Idrissou said.

“Most of the detainees are vaccinated, as well as the staff. Even the new detainees registered recently have been vaccinated for a few days,” he noted.

He said to help detainees, the government offers them an additional meal.

Lawyers are the only exception to the visitation ban, but they must first obtain authorisation.

Lawyer Claude Kokou Amegan said the ban was imposed at a time when every country was watching others for clues about how to react. Now with vaccinations and tougher distancing rules, visits should be allowed, he said.

“The morale of the prisoners was already very low,” Amegan said. “With this decision, they are more isolated.”

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