I was sat in the cool office of the Governor of Arlit prison after having just had a tour round. I’d popped in to see him on a totally different matter (the Governor is a man of many hats) but when he asked me if I’d like to meet “his criminals” I couldn’t refuse.
The prison block is identical to myriad blocks all over Arlit, rough shaped hand made sand coloured bricks, sand and cement mortar joining them together with an attempt having been made to keep the lines level.
Its around 12 metres long by 10 metres wide, with a single sheet steel gate for entry and exit.
As the only white face around, I wasn’t allowed to go in on my own, so as I knocked on the gate, my gaggle of protection huddled around me.
The gate opened, and we moved into a small ante-room before the prison itself. The room had a couple of armed guards inside, with a bed and the traditional open caged cooker, with a small supply of charcoal to make tea. There was a second door, directly opposite the first one, which was then opened and I was into the main body.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. 126 men, and 1 woman, living in a small area, with summer temperatures daily over 45C gives an aroma that has to be experienced to be believed.
There was a small open courtyard area, with the walls all around at least 4 metres high, all topped with cemented in broken glass. On the left hand side four doors, each only about a metre or so apart, and on the right another five doors, these ones further apart.
The air of menace was palpable. Although I was surrounded by several minders, there was a clear threat of danger. Inside were the usual bunch of prisoners that you find in prisons the world over, thieves, fraudsters, drug runners, rapists and murderers , but here they were all living side by side.
I was shown into one of the living quarters, a room of perhaps 8 metres long by 3 metres wide, housing 26 men. No beds, a rough mat on the concrete floor indicated their personal area. Apart from the smell, I was shocked to see a television, with a dozen men sat around it. There was complete indifference towards me, most heads didn’t even turn round, however I did see a man around my age wearing a Chelsea football club shirt. I’ve travelled widely and know that football is often something that can make a bond.
“Chelsea?” I said, “Pfffft, they’re rubbish, I’m an Arsenal fan.”
Two stone cold eyes looked at me, without a glimmer of emotion. “I wear this shirt as that’s all I have. If they weren’t there (indicating my collection of muscle) I’d fucking kill you right now.”
Realising I hadn’t got off to a great start with this particular murderer, I moved along.
I’ve been into a few prisons before, in the UK, France as well as in Africa and in South America, but the thing that struck me here was the total lack of hope. There was desperation in every eye that I looked in. I found out later that they were almost all recidivist criminals, and I could physically see the lack of expectation of anything else in their faces.
After completing my tour, I was in the actual prison for no more than 5 minutes, I moved back into the ante-room, where I saw two young children, around five years old, carrying a plastic bag full of containers. The guards gave a cursory check before they entered, to give food to their father.
I headed back across the baking hot open area into the Governors office. A kindly man, always with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. When we’d discussed the bombings in Arlit a couple of days earlier, he’d shown me a photo of all that remained of one of the suicide bombers, a pair of feet, and he joked that they were very light skinned, could easily be an Englishman.
I asked him about many things, firstly the little children going to feed their father.
“We feed the prisoners here three times a day, but its probably not food as you would know it. We don’t believe on wasting money on our prisoners, they get food to keep them alive, but if they want nice cooking, either they don’t commit crime and eat at home, or they have food brought in by their family.”
I asked about the incidence of violence, as there was no separation between the prisoners, violent ones in with petty thieves.
“In an ideal world we would have different wings, more guards and better separation. However, we’re in Niger. We have very little money. This prison isn’t even purpose built, it used to house juvenile delinquents, its not meant for grown men. They fight all the time, if we don’t have a fight in a day then we worry.”
I swear I saw a wistful look in his eyes as he continued, “in days gone by, when a fight started, the guards would have gone in, beaten the protagonists senseless with their rifles, dragged them out, probably given them another beating just in case, and then they would have gone to the clinic where they would be restrained before waking up.
Nowadays though, with the advent of human rights, we’re just not allowed to do that.”
He clearly saw the look of incredulity on my face, but he was adamant.
“Honestly, nowadays when they fight, the guards go in and break it up, and all those involved are put into the solitary confinement cells. They are boxes of about 2 metres square, with just a tiny hole right at the top for air and light. I give them a couple of days to calm down, then they come in, I hear the case, hand out my punishments and life continues. Punishments can be more solitary, or extra time on their sentence. For the lifers, (of which there are currently 4, all murderers) they just get more solitary. They are the most dangerous here as they’ve nothing to lose, and they know that.”
I asked about escapees, as even though the walls were reasonably high, it wouldn’t take much to fashion an escape from the open courtyard.
“We have no camera’s so we cant actually watch them all the time. It’s a violent place in there, I don’t send my guards in too often, but often enough to check all the walls, to ensure holes aren’t being dug. They cant hide anything (he’s clearly never seen Shawshank) from me in there. But my big fear is they just get over the wall.” He was laughing as he said “ they get out quite often, but we get them back within a very short time.” He was vague about “short time” and refused to answer if there was anyone still on the run but I get the feeling, as it’s the only question he refused to answer, that there probably is.
Later that evening there was an attempt by three prisoners to escape from the main prison in Niamey, they were armed with an automatic pistol, and I wondered if small children gave food to their parents in Niamey too.