The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has launched a nutritional feeding programme at the main prison in Abidjan after the incidence of beriberi, a sickness linked to vitamin deficiency, reached epidemic levels.
The ICRC says it first detected the illness in Abidjan’s Maison d’arrêt et de correction d’Abidjan (MACA), the largest prison in the city housing 5,400 prisoners in a space intended for 1,500, in 2002. An emergency programme stopped the spread of the illness in 2003, but in 2008 181 new cases of berberi were detected.
Beriberi is an ailment that occurs in people with vitamin B1 (also known as thiamin) deficiency. Thiamin is commonly found in meat, vegetable and dairy products.
A March 2007 human rights report from the US State Department noted that the government of Cote d’Ivoire spends just 120 CFA francs (US$0.25) on food per prisoner every day. The UN Mission in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI) has reported that malnutrition is the leading cause of deaths in prisons.
The ICRC said in a statement that it will be handing out a food supplement containing vitamins and minerals, which the 5,000 inmates will take with their normal rations twice weekly for a month.
“The programme… should have short-term effects,” said Claude-Alain Zappella, head of the ICRC’s regional delegation in Abidjan. “To prevent relapses, it will be necessary to make prison food more varied.”
A survey conducted by the non-governmental organisation Médecins Sans Frontières in 2007 concluded that beriberi was being consistently underreported among prisoners and recommended “further attention” be given to the illness. The NGO concluded that a previous outbreak of beriberi at the MACA prison between October 2002 and April 2003 affected 14 percent of prisoners and killed seven people.
“Systematic food supplementation with vitamins and micronutrients should be discussed when the penal ration does not provide the necessary nutrient intake recommended according to international standards,” the report concluded, noting that during the period of the 2002-2003 outbreak, the prison rations provided just a fifth of the quantity of thiamin recommended by international standards.
Civil society members blame rudimentary living conditions, overpopulation and lack of state funding for penitentiary institutions for the extreme hardship of prison life in a country that stigmatises and neglects prisoners to the point that even the authorities in charge seem to prefer to forget about them.
Abdoulaye Keita of Save the Prisoners, a local non-governmental organisation that tries to bring attention to the fate of prisoners, says that as the rich often can bribe their way out of a sentence, or at least make sure their stay will be short and relatively comfortable, it is usually the poor and destitute who end up behind bars - often serving years in custody before being tried.