Malnutrition stalks Congo’s overcrowded prisons

Liyo Silobo, a Congolese inmate prepares a meal inside the Central de Bunia prison in the northeast of town Bunia, Ituri province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Friends of 18-year-old Muno Lembissa said he died in prison from sorrow. The jail’s director said malnutrition contributed to his demise, because he did not have visitors to bring in meals to feed him.

Authorities monitored our interviews with both men, and it was not clear whether they felt able to speak freely about conditions in the jail.

But Camille Nzonzi Mokonyo, director of Bunia Central Prison, conceded that the lack of food was a factor.

“It wasn’t only the punishment that tormented him, but also the malnutrition which led to his death,” he told us. “People who don’t have visitors only eat what is available at the prison.”

Built to house around 250 inmates, the grey concrete walls of the jail hold more than five times that number.

Meals are budgeted according to a prison’s capacity rather than its population, so detainees like Lembissa, who have no family nearby to bring them food, rarely get more than one meal a day and have to rely on outside help.

“It is an undeniable fact that there is a need to put better effort in the management of prisons in our country,” said Congo’s human rights minister Andre Lite.

More than 50 prisoners have died of malnutrition at Bunia Central Prison since the start of 2020, according to the United Nations.

“Malnutrition is rife in prisons across Congo,” said Thomas Fessy from Human Rights Watch. “If it wasn’t for aid coming from local aid groups and charities and churches, most detainees wouldn’t be fed at present.”

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