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Gambia’s prisons, where good is still bad

Feb 21, 2020, 2:10 PM | Article By: Lamin Jahateh

Days after Pap Saine was released from prison, he began to fall down when walking.  Although the newspaper publisher is tall and well-built, the cause of his affliction is not his height or weight.

“I started to feel pain in my heart and when I walk for about five minutes, I fall down,” the 70-year-old said.

“Upon realising my condition, my doctor put me in touch with Prof. Bah, a Senegalese heart specialist in Dakar, for a thorough heart test.”

He was eventually diagnosed with heart failure.Pap Saine’s heart was beating at half the rate of a normal heart.He subsequently underwent heart surgery and a pacemaker was inserted into his chest to regulate its beat.

Pap’s heart condition started after spending 27 days in prison. He also spent a total of 8 days in remand.

The doctors that operated on him in the United Kingdom said if he had spent any more days in prison or without treatment, he could have died in his cell.

“The place was very bad, about 45 of us were in the same cell at the Remand Wing,” he recalled of his days at Mile 2, the state central prison of The Gambia.

Opened in 1920 by the British colonial authorities, Mile 2 is located on the highway to the Gambia’s capital, Banjul.  It is about six minutes’ drive from the capital.

The Remand Wing of Mile 2, where Pap was, is one of the four sections of the prison.  It is where suspects undergoing trial are kept.  It has 11 cells divided into two sections, separated by 15 metres high wall.  Cells 1 to 6 are on one section, and 7 – 11 on the other.  Cells 1 to 8 are of the same size, measuring about 2.5m by 3m.  The biggest cells are 9, 10 and 11. Each measures approximately 3.5m by 6m.

Pap could not remember his cell number at remand, but the total of prisoners in the cell: “45 of us were in the cell, the same cell”.

Other prisoners detained at the same time as Pap gave similar numbers in their respective cells.  A former remand prisoner Balla Musa Saidy said that for the four years he was in remand, the smallest number of people in his cell was 35 prisoners, sometimes going up to 45.

Based on the testimonies of various former prisoners who were in remand, the average number of prisoners in each cell at Remand was 30, from 2009 to 2017.


The conditions in which Pap left the Remand Wing about 11 years ago are still the same as observed during a conducted tour of Mile 2 in November 2019.

The only thing that might have changed now is the number of prisoners in the cells, particularly remand. It is now between 17 and 20 prisoners in a cell.

“The condition has improved since 2017,” a senior prison officer in charge of the remand section said during the tour of the cells.

What serves as bed at Mile 2 remand cells is a wooden plank placed over a raised platform about 50cm high. Each wooden plank is about 50cm wide and 1.8 metres long.

Each prisoner is given a one-man mattress of about 1inch thick.  Those that have access to the bed spread their mattresses on the wooden plank, and the rest, on the damp floor. 

With a maximum of five beds in cell of at least 17 people, the prisoners themselves devised a means of accessing the beds.

“Access to bed in remand is by seniority in the prison – those who came to the cell first are the ones who use the bed,” Pap explained.

Some spread their mattresses underneath the bed to have a space to sleep.  The space underneath the wooden planks that serves as a bed is referred to by the prisoners as ‘dombelow’.  It is formally referred to as ‘down below’.

The space ‘down below’,barely enough for four people lying on their back, is shared by six prisoners.  While others sleep on top and under the wooden planks, the rest sit on the bare floor between the beds and the wall of the cell – a space of about half a metre.

Sleeping on the ‘dombelow’ is by turn – one batch sleeps for a certain hours and another batch comes.

The nightly struggle in remand is not just to access bedding, but also fresh air.

The cells have two windows, about 1m by 30cm, crisscrossed by heavy iron bars.  It has one wall fan.  And with the ongoing reforms at Mile 2, an opening of about 30cm square,for air passage, is created on some of the iron doors.  The opening is fitted with mesh shaped burglar-proofing.

But the air that makes it into the cell is not enough even to dissipate the smell of the sweat of 17 adults cramped together in a small room with stinking mattresses and worn-out bedsheets that are hardly ever washed.

To add to the mal-odourous smell, the remand prisoners are locked in their cells for 14 long hours with a pot where they pass urine and defecate.  Each cell is given one or two 5litre mayonnaise buckets they called ‘chamber pot’ that is placed inside the cell next to the door.  From 6pm to 8am daily, this is the pot the remand prisoners use for urine and faeces. 

“No one was comfortable using the chamber pot because if you happen to make noise [fart] while defecating, you feel ashamed,” said Emil Touray, a former remand prisoner.

“Because of that,during my time in Remand I chose not to be eating dinner so that I can avoid using the chamber pot at night.  I know a lot of people who were not also eating in the evening because they didn’t want to use the pot.”

But even if you don’t use the chamber pot, living with it in the same small cell was a nightmare for the prisoners.

“The smell was very horrible in the cell at night,” Emil lamented.

Remand and retained

Based on the laws of The Gambia, any offence whose punishment is a sentence of death or life imprisonment is unbailable.  Murder is punishable by death sentence only, hence no bail.  Other crimes such as arson, treason, robbery, manslaughter, terrorism and rape carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.