Prison conditions in Liberia ‘deplorable’

A human rights group has denounced what it calls ”deplorable” conditions in Liberia’s prisons and detention centres and has called for reforms in how the institutions are managed.

Rescue Alternatives Liberia (RAL) issued its findings in a December 2008 report, based on visits to prisons and detention centres across Liberia’s 15 political sub-divisions.

Detention centres hold people awaiting trial or sentence, while prisons are for those who have been convicted of crimes.

”Prison conditions [in Liberia] remain deplorable,” RAL’s executive director Jarwlee Tweh Geegbe told Irin. ”Prisoners suffer from overcrowding, the food is inadequate and there is no fresh water. Detainees do not even bathe daily, nor are they allowed to move around.”

He added: ”Some of the detainees have no bedding unless relatives supply them with it, and lack essential items such as soap. They must sleep on the bare floor and some do not even have clothes to wear.”

Prisons are mainly run by poorly paid, poorly trained staff, said Geegbe.

Riccardo Conti, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Liberia, confirmed poor health conditions across many of Liberia’s correctional facilities. ”This can increase detainees’ vulnerability to infectious diseases such as cholera.” ICRC has helped build toilets and showers and provided clean water to detentions centres across the country.

RAL says 1 399 people are detained in Liberia, 91% of them male.

A prison guard who asked to be identified only as Paul, told Irin that many inmates are detained for long periods without trial. In most cases, he said, detainees are eventually pardoned by the courts because of a lack of evidence.

Why poor conditions
Most of Liberia’s correctional and detention facilities were destroyed or damaged during Liberia’s 14-year war and successive governments have not made their rehabilitation a priority, said Geegbe.

The government budget to run individual prisons is unknown and irregular, said the RAL report. ”The sector is begging for subsidies from the government though [the government’s] responsibility is to fully support prisons.”

The government, however, has developed a policy to improve prison conditions, with individual action plans for each prison, said Fatumata Sheriff, assistant minister for rehabilitation at the Justice Ministry, which runs the country’s detention centres.

”We have found it difficult to improve facilities to 100% standards, but conditions are better than during the war,” Sheriff told Irin. ”Inmates now eat regularly and most prison facilities have improved.” To date the government has worked on facilities in Margibi, Monrovia, Lofa and Bomi counties, she said.

The government plan includes training and incentives for prison staff and the rehabilitation of detention centres with help from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Conti of the ICRC told Irin that prison wardens’ salaries have now been raised to equal that of police officers — $80 a month.

Sheriff said the government has also established a new court at the central prison in the capital Monrovia, hiring legal staff to speed up trials.

But for Geegbe the only way to improve conditions significantly is to allow prisons to be autonomous rather than run by the Justice Ministry.

An official working to improve Liberia’s prison conditions disagrees. ”Autonomous functioning will not work in Liberia. You cannot put in place minimum prison standards that way. You need to improve centralised systems to improve conditions.”

An example of improved collaboration, according to the ICRC’s Conti, is combining the budgets of the health and justice ministries to improve prison hygiene standards, which these ministries have done in some cases. – Irin

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