Liberian prisoners live in appalling conditions

Liberia’s most populated prison, Monrovia Central Prison, went into lockdown in January because it couldn’t feed its inmates and its keepers feared a food riot would erupt.

This was not an isolated incident.

Food shortages are an issue at prisons across the country — but they are far from the only issue.

“We are suffering,” says Duo*, a 35-year-old inmate of the Monrovia prison. Prisoners don’t have running water, he says, and get no skills training. The cells hold far more prisoners than they were designed to. “People sleep on the floor. Some tie rice bags high up on the walls and sleep in them. Sometimes they fall and get injured.”

Last year, the director of prisons, Reverend Sainleseh Kwaidah, said that only six out of 16 prisons had any clinical facilities or a clinician on duty each day. In the other 10 prisons, medical staff were only available on a rotational arranged schedule.

But, Duo says, it is the food situation that is truly dire. “We eat only once a day and it is just a small plate of rice. The soup is usually bad so we have to buy some from outside. If you’re lucky to have people on the outside, they will bring food for you.”

In January, Duo and many others weren’t able to eat at all for two days. It might have been longer but for the intervention of a local businessman, Upjit Singh Sachdeva, who donated food to the prison.

Community members look on as Liberian Police officers block some roads leading to Capitol Hill after the protest against the deepening economic crisis under Liberian President George Weah, in Monrovia on January 6, 2020. – The demonstration follows two mass rallies against the footballer-turned-president as the impoverished West African country struggles with corruption and rising prices. (Photo by Carielle Doe / AFP)

A major part of the problem is that Liberia has way more prisoners than it should. Sixty-three percent of the prison population are pretrial detainees, according to a 2020 human rights report by the United States government.

In Monrovia Central Prison, where Duo is incarcerated, that figure is 77%. There are cases where the pre-trial detention has exceeded the maximum length of sentence that could be imposed for the alleged crime, the report noted.

Reverend Francis Kollie, the country director of Prison Fellowship Liberia, said: “We have a high number of pre-trial detainees and overcrowded prisons. This is due in part to the lack of a public defence programme that can adequately meet the demand of citizens.” 

In a country where the national per capita income was just $570 in 2020, most people cannot afford bail or to hire a lawyer.

The government does employ public defenders to represent the poorest citizens but they are stretched thin, having to cover large areas in rural Liberia, leaving many people without adequate legal representation.

As a result, the prison system heaves with a population that far exceeds what it was built to hold. The Monrovia Central Prison was built to hold 374 people but in 2020 it held 1 230.

Funding prisoner welfare remains a low priority. A 2021 audit of the prison system by Liberia’s auditing commission showed that inmates had not been fed fish or meat for six months, from January to June 2021, because their monthly food budget was cut from $5 000 per prison to $3 000. The year before, $19 000 of the money meant to feed prisoners was diverted to cover security for a senatorial election in one of Liberia’s counties.

In a 2022 February press release, the government said it would build a new prison facility for the Monrovia Central Prison, which can’t hold any more prisoners than it already has. “The ministry of justice and stakeholders are to explore avenues for possible funding for the construction of a new prison facility,” the statement said. In February, the president also declared that he would be granting clemency to 500 inmates.

But Duo has a suggestion that does not involve investing even more of the country’s scarce resources in locking up even more citizens. “They need to introduce probation for good behaviour. I would have qualified by now.”  

*A pseudonym

This article first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at mg.co.za/thecontinent/

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