In this time of coronavirus, the last thing any government wants to deal with is prison riots. As the pandemic continues to spread, human rights organisations have raised concerns that overcrowding and poor sanitation in prisons across Africa puts inmates at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19.
Sierra Leone’s government has received backlash for not heeding this call.
On April 29, residents of the capital, Freetown, woke up to gunshots and news of a riot at the Pademba Road prison, the country’s biggest correctional facility, according to Amnesty International. Dense smoke filled the air as parts of the detention facility, including its reception, kitchen and medical unit, burned. When the riot was tamed it was reported that five inmates and two prison officers were killed. Details of what caused the riot are still scant, but the incident occurred after an inmate tested positive for Covid-19 and the government instituted stricter restrictions on movements.
Before the riot, the Pademba Road prisoners had complained of food shortages, after the government prohibited all visits to the facility. They were also concerned about inadequate measures to prevent the spread of the virus to other inmates.
Human rights group Amnesty International has described the riot as a show of “desperation” at the government’s inaction to protect the rights of prisoners. The organisation warns that more riots could take place if the living conditions and protection for inmates from contracting Covid-19 in detention facilities are not addressed.
“Unless overcrowding is eased and conditions of detention improved, there is a risk of further riots and infections,” the organisation said on its website.
Like other countries in Africa, Sierra Leone has struggled to improve facilities at its 19 correctional centres to meet minimum international standards. The country’s prisons are chronically congested and characterised by appalling sanitation deficiencies.
The Pademba Road prison in Freetown was originally meant to house just more than 300 inmates, but is now home to four times its intended capacity. This has worsened its already precarious overcrowding and sanitation challenges. There are genuine fears of contamination and a subsequent escalation in cases should the virus spread among prisoners.
A couple of days before the prison riot, on the country’s independence day, President Julius Maada Bio had announced that more than 200 prisoners would be released across the country to decongest facilities and reduce the risk of coronavirus infection.
The operations of criminal courts were also suspended for one month to reduce prison contamination. Inmates who qualified for release included the elderly and those with medical conditions, among others. But after the riot, it is unclear whether the release of these prisoners will still materialise.
The president blamed the main opposition party for instigating the prison riot, as well as several other violent incidents.
“For each of the attacks at Lunsar, Foredugu, Tombo, and the prison breakout at Pademba Road correctional centre, known agents and associates of the All People’s Congress party have publicly predicted the precise date, target and nature of the attacks. There is an obvious pattern. These attacks are, therefore, premeditated, orchestrated and executed with a clear objective — to make the state ungovernable.”
For its part, the opposition has blamed the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party for instigating the violence at the prison.
Meanwhile, countries across the continent have also been making frantic efforts to release prisoners to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari said that 42% of Nigeria’s 74000 prisoners are still awaiting trial, and called on the chief justice to release some of those inmates.
In Cameroon, President Paul Biya also ordered the release of prisoners to avoid the spread of the virus in badly congested cells. In a bizarre public pronouncement — the president’s first since the country’s first case of coronavirus was reported — Biya said that people convicted of major crimes, such as terrorism, corruption and embezzlement, were not included in the order. Similar calls have been made across the continent and elsewhere in the world.
After the Pademba Road riot last month, Amnesty International has expressed its concern about the use of live ammunition and heavy-handedness by guards.
“Even in times of emergency, law-enforcement officials may only use force that is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate objective, and must minimise harm and damage. International standards on the use of force require that intentional lethal force is only used where it is strictly unavoidable to protect another life from an imminent threat,” the organisation said.
However, this is not the first time prisoners have rioted or died in Sierra Leone. In the early 2000s, prison breaks and riots were common across the country, with guards reportedly resorting to using live ammunition to quell unrest, and killing inmates in the process.
Although international statutes require law-enforcement agencies to treat prisoners with dignity and to respect their fundamental human rights, there have been major lapses in this respect across the continent.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoner, dubbed the “Nelson Mandela Rules”, states in rule one of its basic principles that: “… no prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances what-soever may be invoked as a justification …”.
Whether governments and law-enforcement bodies across Africa are serious about implementing this reform in prisons is questionable. In Sierra Leone, Amnesty International has called for a prompt and impartial investigation into the “heavy-handedness” and use of “live ammunition” on prisoners who were believed to be demanding better protection against Covid-19.
The spokesperson for the Sierra Leone Correctional Service was contacted for comment, but instead referred the Mail & Guardian to its website, slcs.sl, which has no information about the riot.