‘We don’t have the budget to feed all the inmates’: A rise in deaths in DR Congo prisons

Overcrowding, lack of food, disease… In September alone, 14 inmates died in the main prison in Goma, the capital of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Images of inmates crammed into tents and photos of bodies being removed leaked onto social networks in mid-October. Our Observers told us about the alarming living conditions in this prison, which holds ten times more prisoners than its intended capacity.

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Men, most of them emaciated, sitting on the floor and crammed by the dozen under tents. These are the images from inside Munzenze prison, Goma’s central prison, which have been leaked in WhatsApp groups since October 5.





Other images posted on WhatsApp show the removal of at least four people, presumably dead, from the prison.

Photo shared in WhatsApp groups since October 5, showing the outside of Goma central prison, where people appear to be removing the body of a detainee.
Photo shared in WhatsApp groups since October 5, showing the outside of Goma central prison, where people appear to be removing the body of a detainee. © Observers

Five photos of inmates’ death certificates have also been shared: two are from October, while the other three are dated April, February and January 2023. We are not publishing them for reasons of confidentiality, but a prison employee has confirmed that they are genuine.

Ten times too many inmates

According to an official source, who wished to remain anonymous, 14 inmates at Munzenze prison died in September and eight in October.

Built in the 1950s to accommodate 350 inmates, Goma’s central prison currently holds around 3,600 prisoners, more than ten times its original capacity.

Last May, according to a report by the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 81% of the inmates were being held on remand. Some had died before being tried, the report said.

‘Being employed in this prison is like being a soldier on a battlefield with no resources’

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a prison employee, who wanted to remain anonymous. He told us that the deaths were linked to malnutrition.

We calculated that malnutrition, combined with tuberculosis, was responsible for 90% of deaths in the prison.

We’ve had cases of prisoners weighing 35 kg.

Some people arrive in prison underweight. Then, because of overcrowding, we don’t have the budget to feed all the inmates, which leads to cases of severe malnutrition. So those who have no assistance from their families are the most exposed to malnutrition, and the most likely to die.

Goma Central Prison is a snapshot of the general prison situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Being employed in this prison is like being a soldier on a battlefield with no resources. That’s why Congolese prisons are such misery.

‘You have to pay for everything’

Jack Sinzahera, a member of the pro-democracy collective Amka Congo, has been incarcerated on several occasions in a separate cell in the penitentiary centre. He told us about the conditions.

The conditions are deplorable. Most of the prisoners sleep on the floor. Some catch diseases and die. Others die of malnutrition.

You have to pay for everything: food, medical care, a better place to sleep or a telephone. There is also a charge for visits, so many prisoners have no family assistance.

Sinzahera says that the problem stems back to arbitrary detention and the failure of the prison administration and the judiciary to act.

Often, the wait for a case to be dealt with by a magistrate can last months or even years. The delays are so severe that the UN had to launch a project to review the files of 2,000 prisoners last May.

Against the backdrop of a war in North Kivu

A local official told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that prison conditions were “disastrous”. But it’s not all due to the lack of resources allocated by the state.

This overcrowding is a consequence of the ongoing war in the region. Since the start of the “state of siege” in North Kivu, and the transfer of jurisdiction to the military courts, many people have been sent to prison.

The situation has worsened since [the NGO] Médecins Sans Frontières withdrew from the prison last June. Since then, we have even less food budget.

The provinces of North Kivu and Ituri have been under military rule since May 2021 due to violence perpetrated by armed groups. Security forces, including the police and military, have been given extensive powers, which they’ve often abused to carry out arbitrary arrest and detention, according to a report from Amnesty International

This state of siege has been progressively “eased” since October 12.

The Observers would like to thank Pierre Tchey, a law student at the University of Lubumbashi, for sending us the photos in this article and helping us find contacts.

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