Extract from Chapter I


Forty centimetres: space

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Forty centimetres is the standard width of a prisoner’s individual space, where he sleeps, where he eats, where he sits, where he lives.  He calls it his château, his castle.  It consists of one or two planks of wood placed on a metal frame.  The planks are lined up next to each other, with no space in between.  Sometimes there are makeshift partitions between the planks, but often there aren’t.  The planks are on a structure of bunk-beds, on three levels, with a wooden ladder propped up against the front to climb up to the top levels.  There are no cells, just row after row of these bunk-bed structures, erected in basic buildings.  Each building is a block.  Several hundred prisoners are crammed into each block.  Several thousand prisoners are crammed into each prison.

There are not enough châteaux for everybody – far from it.  Those who get a space on these planks are the lucky ones.  Others have to sleep on the ground in a tiny space underneath the lowest row of planks, on the concrete; it is so low you would not think an adult could enter it.  But they do, tall men with supple bodies crawling in there like cats, their bodies bending at improbable angles.  Or old men for whom the process of sliding in and out of this space is visibly painful.  Once in, they can barely move.  They lie there with the top of their head grazing the planks of the bunk-bed above them.  They can’t turn over and they can barely breathe.  In Cyangugu Central Prison, these spaces under the beds are called “mines”; in Butare, they are indake (trenches); in Gitarama, they are igara (the place underneath).  One prisoner told us he had spent six years sleeping in a mine, on the concrete under someone else’s bed.

Other prisoners sleep on the ground in the corridors, in the gangways between the bunk-beds, where they are often trampled on or accidentally kicked.  One prisoner told us that people can’t complain if you walk on them, because it is obviously not done on purpose.  Another prisoner who had been sleeping in a corridor for more than three years explained how he had to fold up his legs all the time so that people could pass without walking on him.  Many sleep directly on the ground.  Others sleep on pieces of cardboard, or on a torn sack, or on part of a blanket, with the other part folded over them.

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Cyangugu Central Prison, Rwanda 2004 © Carina Tertsakian
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