Liberia: prisoners, officers complain of overcrowded conditions

Lahyee, black in complexion and about 6’2 in height, has spent over three months in a cramped jail cell, at the Gbarnga Central Prison, without seeing a judge or facing the man who accused him of stealing his motorcycle.

Under Liberia’s penal code, an individual accused of a crime can be detained for a maximum of 30 days without appearing before a court. Yet Lahyee, like many pre-trial detainees in prisons throughout the country, still has no idea when he will be released.

“I don’t know when to go to court as I have spent three months here, and I worry so much for my pregnant girlfriend behind me,” said 30-year-old Layhee. “If I will continue here, at least let us go into the case to be found guilty by the court or set free.”

Lahyee is among over 325 inmates detained at the Gbarnga Central Prison built to accommodate half the number. More than two thirds of the inmates in Gbarnga are pretrial detainees, according to a prison official, who spoke to the Daily Observer on the condition of anonymity.

The Daily Observer reporter also went inside the prison, and witnessed the difficult conditions inmates are enduring. “We want justice, and if no justice, we will find it ourselves,” Lahyee and a group of other inmates crammed into his cell repeated. ‘Finding justice’ in the prison is a code for breaking out, according to a prison officer, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprimand from superiors.

A correction officer at Gbarnga prison expressed concern that overcrowding leads to jailbreaks, and put their safety at risk. The officer acknowledged pretrial detention was exacerbating the problem, but called on the government to take action to address overcrowding and improve prison conditions.

“The number of inmates here now is added up weekly,” the officer in Gbarnga told the Observer on condition of anonymity.

Twenty-one inmates escaped from the prison during a jailbreak in April 2017.

The government agrees that overcrowding is a growing problem. Eddie S. Tarawali, Assistant Minister for Corrections and Rehabilitation at the Ministry of Justice, agrees that prisons across Liberia are overwhelmed by huge numbers of pretrial detainees and convicts.

Tarawali said the Monrovia Central Prison built to host 375 persons is now filled with 1,400 inmates.

“Prisons across Liberia are overcrowded and we are not able to observe standards in line with best practices. People are imprisoned according to the gravity of crimes committed, gender and age, and, because of overcrowding, we are not able to separate them. Among the inmates in prisons here, pretrial detainees constituting the highest,” Tarawali said.

Inside the prison walls

Inmates are often crammed into cells, lack access to regular meals, clean drinking water and medicine, and often rely on family members to bring food on visits. At the prison compound in Gbarnga, there are seven buildings used for different purposes. Besides the main cells where the inmates sleep; there are offices for corrections officers, and areas for vocational training. Animals, including rabbits and chickens are raised on the premises. Sometimes prison officers sell the livestock to pay for medication for inmates, one officer said. The prison clinic has run out of drugs, according to the officer in Gbarnga, who added that when any inmate falls sick, the person is taken to town for medication.

According to a prison officer in Gbarnga, there were beds in the cells, but the inmates dismantled them and were using the metal parts to fight one another, and break some parts of the building to escape. Now, inmates sleep on mats and heavy bed sheets provided by the Prison Fellowship, a donor supported, faith-based organization that provides food, material support assistance and counseling services for inmates in prisons throughout 12 of the 15 counties.

Food is often in limited supply, with inmates eating rice once a day, and inmates who have no relatives to bring them food or food money often eat less.

Officers must also escort inmates to a nearby creek to fetch water for bathing and cooking, according to the officer who spoke to the Daily Observer. With only 22 staffs working in the prison, inmates have appointed their own leaders to supervise the maintenance of bathrooms and the open rooms for sleeping.

Overcrowding in Nimba

Sanniquellie Central Prison in Nimba County is faced with a similar problem with overcrowding. Less than half of the 154 detainees registered in May, were convicts. This prison was only built about five years ago, but prison officers reported similar conditions to that in Gbarnga prison.

The prison compound has two hand pumps that are fully functional, but feeding the inmates also remains a challenge.

“Relatives bring food for some of the inmates to help with the feeding, but the authority has a serious challenge here in terms of food,” a prison officer told the Daily Observer on conditions of anonymity.

Weah promised reform, but problems persist

President George Weah in his State of the Nation Address on January 29, 2018 said among other things, that every Liberian, regardless of background, would be treated equally in line with the law.

“The Liberian Constitution, which is the Supreme Law of the Republic, and with which I am intimately familiar, shall be my principal guide for leadership, and governance throughout my tenure as President,” he said.

“Without pretending to be a constitutional scholar, expert, or lawyer, I have found direction, as well as inspiration, from studying it. I would humbly advise all of you honorable ladies and gentlemen, and indeed – all Liberians — to study your Constitution well, for I find it to be the most useful and practical guide for those who would govern, and for those who are governed,” said President Weah.

But the problem of pretrial detention and prison overcrowding persists. According to Senior Assistant Judge of the Ganta Magisterial Court, Owens P. Flomo, the inability of a defendant to file a valid appearing bond and failure of the prosecutor to bring the accused to court can lead to pretrial detention. Judge Flomo added that pretrial detention also results when the defense lawyer does not adequately represent the interests of the client.

“Sometimes the prosecutor in criminal cases like rape, murder and other grave crimes against the state will delay the hearing by seeking excuses for other reasons, but when the court notices that the prosecutor is not capacitated enough to pursue the case, the court notifies the two parties and dismisses that case in the presence of all parties,” he said.

In another case, Judge Flomo said some individuals have a tendency to have others imprisoned for allegations they cannot prove in court.

“The attitude some have that they should get another person detained in prison is one of the causes of pretrial detention, but when the court notices that a complainant is not willing to pursue his/her case but to get an alleged perpetrator detained, the court dismisses the case and sets free the detainee,” he said.

NGOs supporting prison system

For Reverend Francis Kollie, the executive director of Prison Fellowship, corruption within the judicial system and high legal fees remain the key problems.

Kollie said judges often solicit money from relatives of the inmates and moreover, many inmates cannot afford exorbitant fees charged by lawyers.

The Prison Fellowship helps hire lawyers for defendants who cannot afford legal fees and they work wit prison officers to meet the welfare of prisoners by providing food supplies to prisons. He said the government does not supply regular food for the prisons. “If non-governmental organizations including the Prison Fellowship were not supplying food and medication, it would have been very bad for the inmates,” said Rev. Kollie.

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