The Legal System and Necessity of Prison Reform in the DRC5 min read

The government and other entities within the Democratic Republic of Congo have previously been accused of several horrendous human rights violations. Whether it’s cases of ethnic cleansing or major abuses in manual labor work, international human rights organizations have noted many different incidents for an extended period of time. Amongst these cases, this paper will specifically analyze the situation of a maximum security prison located in the capital city of the DRC, Kinshasa, and talk about the atrocious living conditions that the majority of these inmates are suffering through each and every day. 

On May 19th, 2017, one of the biggest prison breaks in the history of the African continent occurred in the Makala prison. Members of a cultist rebel group called the Bundu dia Kongo stormed the prison cells in Kinshasa in a futile attempt to free the guru that led their organization. In the midst of the mayhem, nearly 5,000 inmates escaped and more than 80 people, including prison guards and staff members, were killed. However, despite these tragic numbers, the most horrific and shocking realization was how awful the conditions of the jail cells were. People were already dying because of starvation and diseases spreading throughout the facility, and the government promised to enforce changes through monetary support and other legal means (Freytas-Tamura & Wembi, 2017). 

While this blatant human rights violation faded away from mainstream media, several news outlets have resurfaced this exact prison in an article released on January 9th, 2020. BBC reported that 17 people died in the span of just one week, “due to a lack of food and medicine, as well as poor hygiene.” (BBC, 2020).  The facility was created to accommodate 1,500 prisoners but was carrying nearly 9,000. According to several first hand sources, there were inmates that had to sleep standing up, and there was a severe lack of resources in regards to their requisite nourishment and general health. Article Five of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “no one shall be subjected to … cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” (United Nations, 1948), and this situation certainly qualifies as an inhumane operation. While overpopulation is a problem that affects most countries in Africa, having nearly five times the amount of the maximum capacity is incomparable: there must be a course of action. 

These conditions are exacerbated by the ineffectiveness of the current structure of the legal penitentiary system; approximately 73% of the people inside the jail cells are imprisoned as pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners, but have to stay in waiting for several years due to the bogged-down nature of how cases are legally handled(WPB, 1970). A lot of courts on both the local levels and the federal levels are significantly overburdened by the sheer proportions between the available members of the governmental workforce and the situations that necessitate legal processes. As a result, overpopulation becomes a very serious issue and the state does not have the time or the opportunity to revamp the system. The assumptions behind the existence of a maximum security apparatus is so that those cells would be exclusively for those that committed crimes that deserved long sentences or even death. These units represent the highest levels of custody in most countries; an economically weak state like the DRC does not have the financial or combative capability to support security measures that are better equipped to handle higher threat levels. The system is clearly broken, but the government of Democratic Republic of Congo has not actively enacted policies or even behaved in a manner that may lead to an amelioration of this situation. 

These circumstances are just symptoms of widespread poverty and misallocation of resources by the governance of the DRC. The World Bank estimated the extreme poverty levels to be at or near 73% in 2018, and economic growth and development has been a scarce sight (World Bank, 2019). Their economy relies heavily on mining as their major source of income, but as seen through the lack of progress as a state, there has not been any attempts at revitalizing the economy and rehabilitating the justice system. The state is stuck in a muddy cycle: they are trying to introduce improvements in social welfare and infrastructure, but aren’t able to, due to the incompetence of the judicial courts and the faulty nature of all elements of their government. Recently, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has requested a 63% increase in the annual national budget for 2020, which included promises and plans to lift people out of poverty through improvement in technological infrastructure and the provision of high quality but basic necessities such as water or electricity, (Kavanaugh, 2019). While prison reform is not considered an a-priori issue especially for developing countries, will this expanded budget include the augmentation of prisons, or anything of that nature? This should not be a step-by-step process; it is wrong to assume that the state will get to fixing one problem after it fixes another. Instead, there must be a holistic overview of its bureaucracy and realize that an encumbered justice system is a fatal flaw in developing strong governance.

Works Cited

“Democratic Republic of Congo.” Democratic Republic of Congo | World Prison Brief, World Prison Brief, 1 Jan. 1970,

“DR Congo Jail: Inmates Starve to Death in Makala Prison.” BBC News, BBC, 9 Jan. 2020,

Freytas-tamura, Kimiko De, and Steve Wembi. “An Unfortunate Record for Congo: Thousands Flee Cells in Biggest Jailbreak.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 May 2017,

Kavanaugh, Michael. “Congo Targets 60% Budget Increase for 2020 to Fight Poverty.”, Bloomberg, 17 Oct. 2019,

“The World Bank in DRC.” World Bank, The World Bank,

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, UN General Assembly, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), Available at: Https:// 

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