Caroline Pradier reports on the impact of YMCA legal clubs securing justice for young prisoners facing inhumane conditions or have been detained unlawfully.

When I think about Togo, I think about a lovely country on the way to democracy, my YMCA partners and the incredible job they are doing there, and of course of all the prisoners I have met.

For the past ten years, Togo YMCA has been helping prisoners who are detained in inhumane conditions to access fair trials. They’ve come up with an innovative way to help these prisoners – legal clubs.

In Togo’s prisons, young people are often detained for long periods, many for petty crimes. Young people like Djibril, who had to turn to petty crime to pay for a basic need – his hospital fees.

“When I was younger my mother was left with seven children. She made little money by making and selling beer, so she found it really hard to look after us. She ended up having to borrow money and got into debt.

“When I was 17, I got sick and had to go to hospital but my mother couldn’t pay the fees. I decided to help her find the money. I tried to steal a sheep to sell and I got caught. I spent three days in cell before they sent me to prison. I was there for two months before I was sentenced.”

Having spent months in a cell unlawfully, he faced trial with no knowledge of his rights. However legal clubs formed of prisoners trained in legal rights, meet other prisoners to talk to them about their cases and offer advice, helped him secure justice.

“The YMCA took me in as if I was their little brother.”

These clubs literally give a breathing space to prisoners. People spend their lives in cells with upto 60 others. Some people don’t even have enough room to lie down to sleep. Imagine that – for several years.

Skin diseases are common and prisoners’ health can deteriorate quickly. This is not helped by the fact that they only eat one meal a day – the same meal, every single day.

“I was sentenced to one year but with the YMCA’s help I was released after six months. The day I was released, I thanked the YMCA.

Thanks to the clubs, over a thousand prisoners have been released in the last four years. It might seem like a lot, but when overpopulation in Togo’s prisons may be as high as 200%, there’s still much to be done.

These projects also act as watchdogs and remind the government about prisoners on a regular basis – because when you put people behind bars, it’s easy to forget about them. However, these young people are not forgotten about even after release. They are supported to find a job our start their own business to prevent so they don’t have to turn to crime again.

“A week after my release, I did six months training at a motorcycle garage which the YMCA helped pay for.

“I have had my own business for five months now. I rent a room  by the side of the road and on a good day, I get up to six customers. I’m also part of a savings group.

“My business is called ‘Rien n’est tard’ which means ‘it is never too late’. With my business, things have changed for me. I don’t need to ask people for help to get food for my family, and I don’t hang around with bad people that could get me into trouble. Without the YMCA’s help, my life wouldn’t be where it is today.