By GEOFFREY WANSELL
Torture and starvation routine. Disease and death commonplace. And if you escape all that, there's always cannibalism to contend with. The fate that awaits British mercenary Simon Mann in the cruellest jail on the planet.
Malaria and yellow fever are endemic, there is an infestation of rats and the sadistic guards think nothing of torture and keeping inmates starved of food for days on end.
Black Beach prison in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (off the west coast of Africa), is surely worse than the notorious Devil's Island, home to the fictional Papillon.
Harsh: Simon Mann (left) faces imprisonment in Black Beach, Equatorial Guinea
There are no human rights, no proper access for lawyers, no regular family visits, no medical
supervision; in fact, almost no contact whatever with the outside world from behind the barbed wire and the guard towers.
The jail, situated on the tropical volcanic island of Bioko, is a black hole into which prisoners disappear - often in mysterious circumstances - or die of chronic disease after being beaten.
Small wonder that the 53-year-old British former SAS officer and alleged mercenary Simon Mann - who last week lost his battle to avoid extradition from Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, where he is accused of organising a "coup" to overthrow the oil-rich country's despotic government - is convinced he will die in the isolated prison.
Black Beach, Equatorial Guinea:There are no human rights, no proper access for lawyers, no regular family
visits and no medical supervision
Mann's lawyer, Jonathan Samkange, said after the extradition hearing: "I'm not going to allow Simon to go to Equatorial Guinea because I know for sure he'll be killed."
He has every right to be concerned. According to sources inside Equatorial Guinea, the President has promised his henchmen that once Mann, a close friend of Sir Mark Thatcher, is extradited to Black Beach, he will be paraded in triumph to his palace in the old port of Malabo to be sodomised personally by the President before being skinned alive.
Such taunts are typical of a man who reportedly thinks nothing of torturing and executing his political opponents once they have reached the jail.
One political opponent, Pedro Motu Mamiaga, is said to have had his liver removed - which the President then ate.
Like Idi Amin of Uganda, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema likes to suggest he is a cannibal, to maintain his power and mystique.
Friends of Mann (the Old Etonian son of a Fifties England cricket captain) fear he will be tortured, not just to extract information about the alleged coup but to satisfy the President's demands.
"The catalogue of murder and torture in his prisons, police stations and elsewhere is toecurling," explains one expert on the country.
"Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch frequently report on extra-judicial executions, torture and rape by police and soldiers."
Two years ago, a British judge described the President as "a despot who rules without regard to the rule of law or democratic institutions such as free elections, and through a regime which uses torture to procure confessions".
Mann, whose wife is living in their Hampshire home, would not be the first to suffer in Black Beach, where prisoners have their jaws broken as a matter of course, or their forearms snapped.
One French economist bent on exposing corruption in the country had the veins in his neck sliced open.
Indeed, the fate of the foreign prisoners has been of rapidly increasing concern since the death of a German who was a member of Mann's alleged plot to overthrow the President.
Gerhard Eugen Nershz died in 2005 from what the authorities officially described as
"cerebral malaria with complications".
He was taken to hospital just hours before his death, where witnesses said he had "severe injuries" to both his hands and feet apparently caused by torture.
The United Nations, the American State Department and Amnesty have all drawn attention to the "disappearance" of three members of the Equatorial Guinea armed forces and a civilian, also held in Black Beach.
All four were later found guilty, in their absence, of planning a coup.
The list of horror stories surrounding the jail goes on.
In September 2002, inmate Juan Asumu Sima died shortly after his trial for another coup attempt.
During the trial - in which he was convicted - he needed help to stand, and reportedly had scars on
his legs and arms, consistent with accounts that he was severely tortured in detention. He repeatedly requested medical assistance, but was refused.
Some months later, Felipe Ondo Obiang, head of one of the opposition parties to the President and accused of being involved in another coup attempt, also vanished. (He had already been sentenced to 20 years in Black Beach.)
There was speculation that he had been abducted, and he has not been seen since.
At least 13 other co-accuseds remain in Black Beach - most, if not all, were severely tortured at the time of their arrest, according to Amnesty, which added that they were refused medical attention, against UN rules.
Simon Mann, who is reported to be in poor health and in need of a hip replacement and hernia surgery, is unlikely to receive any medical attention should he be sent to Black Beach.
Yet medical treatment would be just one of his problems. Prisoners at Black Beach face another privation - lack of food.
Their daily ration of one cup of rice a day was reduced to one or two bread rolls a day three years ago, but even that has been cut recently.
Prisoners can go for six days at a time without receiving food.
Another of Mann's colleagues in the alleged coup conspiracy was former South African Army officer Nick du Toit.
He was allegedly part of an "advance party", waiting for Mann and about 70 other mercenaries to arrive.
However, the plotters were arrested in Harare after a large consignment of weapons was seized at the city's airport and Zimbabwean prosecutors accused them of planning a coup in Equatorial Guinea.
As part of a plea bargain in South Africa, where he was accused of being part of the plot, Sir Mark Thatcher admitted leasing a helicopter for Mann, knowing it was to be used in the coup bid.
Du Toit was jailed for 34 years in 2005 after what Amnesty alleges was a "grotesquely unfair" trial.
At first, he admitted taking part in the coup attempt, but withdrew his statement, claiming it was given under torture.
He has managed to smuggle letters out of Black Beach to his wife, Belinda, who says:
"He's so thin that he looks like a grain of rice."
Amnesty says that du Toit and ten other foreigners sentenced with him are at imminent risk of starvation.
All foreign prisoners are kept inside their cell for 24 hours a day, with their hands and legs shackled at all times.
The prison authorities block all contact with their lawyers, consular officials or members of their families.
Belinda said: "I can't believe there are places that operate this way."
Sometimes there is no access to water. Even when it is available, it is dirty and Belinda is worried about cholera.
Her husband is reportedly in poor health following a series of beatings and the persistent lack of food.
"Many prisoners are extremely weak because of torture or ill-treatment and chronic illness," says Kolawole Olaniyan, director of Amnesty's Africa programme.
"Unless immediate action is taken, many of those detained there will die.
"It is a scandalous failure by the authorities to fulfil their most basic responsibilities under international law."
Another Amnesty campaign director, Stephen Bowen, similarly says: "Such near starvation, lack of medical attention and appalling prison conditions are nothing short of a slow, lingering death sentence."
But what is it about Equatorial Guinea that inspires these brutal, mindless atrocities?
The answer can be traced to the traditions of the ruling Nguema family.
The country became a republic in 1968 and the first elected president, Macias Nguema (the current ruler's uncle), took control.
Within a few months, he killed an opponent by breaking his legs and letting him die of malnutrition.
He then murdered ten members of his Cabinet and, according to Amnesty, massacred "tens of thousands of his own people".
The country soon got the nickname 'the Dachau of Africa' and more than 100,000 of its inhabitants fled.
Nguema next banned medicines - which led to the widespread return of tropical diseases, including yellow fever, malaria, leprosy, diphtheria, typhus and cholera.
He also took Western hostages, expelled missionaries, closed schools, banned the word
'intellectual' and declared himself President for life.
But in 1979, his rule was overturned by his nephew, then in charge of the National Guard and commandant of Black Beach.
Marcias Nguema was shot by Obiang's supporters shortly after he tried to flee with the country's
entire foreign currency reserves - £100 million -stuffed into suitcases.
But the country's plight did not improve. Now acknowledged as one of West Africa's most feared despots, legend has it that President Obiang Nguema eats the testicles of his defeated enemies so that he can absorb their life force.
However, financially, he was far luckier than his uncle.
In the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea was transformed by the discovery of two vast oil fields near Bioko Island.
The country now produces more oil per head of population than Saudi Arabia.
Yet the fortune doesn't reach the population at large.
Four years ago, the International Monetary Fund found that the government had received £65 million in oil royalties, but accounted for only £17million.
Observers call it "one of the most corrupt, oppressive and anti-democratic states in the world".
With water shortages in all major cities, little running water or electricity, the population is malnourished, forced to live on monkey meat, yams and bananas, and has an average life expectancy of just 43.
The country has the smallest proportion of GDP spent on health and education of all Africa.
Meanwhile, Forbes magazine estimates the President's personal wealth at £300 million, and in 2004 he bought his sixth private plane - a Boeing 737 - for nearly £30 million.
Nowhere are conditions harsher than in Black Beach prison.
As one senior government official said recently:
"It is doubtful any Western prisoner could survive for more than three years because of the health problems in our jails."
Simon Mann has every right to fear for his life should he find himself incarcerated there.