BAMAKO (AFP) – Laughing children, yoga classes, job-training sessions: Mali’s only women’s prison is a far cry from the squalid, overcrowded jails found elsewhere in the war-torn Sahel.
Once past the rusty doors and ochre-coloured walls of the Bolle penitentiary in the capital Bamako, there is little indication that this is a prison at all.
Women pound millet as their children play around a slide in the nursery.
A long-time prisoner who gave her name as Mariam told AFP that there is a strong sense of solidarity among the 144 inmates.
“We stick together,” said Mariam, adding that new arrivals are welcomed.
Bolle is one of the only women’s prisons in Africa’s Sahel region, which has been plagued by a brutal extremist conflict since 2012.
Standards are far higher than other in prisons in Mali, where male criminals and extremists are crammed into dark and filthy cells.
“We don’t consider Bolle a detention centre,” said official from Mali’s prison service Babou Togora.
The penitentiary is similar to others in the Sahel in some respects, however.
Most of the inmates are yet to stand trial because of lengthy delays in the former French colony’s under-resourced legal system.
A Nigerian woman in the courtyard, who declined to be named, said she has been imprisoned for 19 months, awaiting trial.
“That’s how it is here,” she said, in heavily accented French, with a smile.
About two thirds of the women are in a similar position, according to prison authorities.
Nineteen of the inmates hail from surrounding Sahel countries, with some coming from as far away as Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
Founded in 1999, Bolle has its origins in the turmoil triggered by Mali’s 1991 coup d’etat.
During the putsch, male prisoners reportedly preyed upon female inmates.
The central prison in Bamako was one facility where men “took advantage of the revolution to abuse the female inmates,” according to Bolle’s Deputy Warden Inspector Gabriel Flazan Sidibe.
Other prisons in Mali still contain women’s sections. But Sidibe said “we are doing everything to group them” at Bolle.
Bolle’s inmates are detained on charges of everything from infanticide to assault and involvement in the drug trade. One prisoner, who was released a few months ago, had been detained on terrorism charges.
Many inmates are put behind bars up along with their children, who are innocent of any crime.
Binta, a woman in her twenties convicted of fraud two years ago, is locked up with her young son Nabil.
She said the boy’s father comes to the prison several times a week to take him for car rides around the city, but that Nabil cries when he has to return to jail.
Moussa Bagayoko from a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that aids the imprisoned children, said, “They didn’t do anything to end up here – it’s their mothers who did something wrong.”
He added that the foreign funding on which Bolle relies is becoming increasingly rare.
Mariam, who is serving a 20-year sentence for killing one of her husband’s other wives, said that “we need a presidential pardon”.
“To err is human,” she added. “No one is perfect in life.”