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Sierra Leone: "I didn't mean to plead guilty"

“Miriam” grew up in Sierra Leone and didn’t go to school. As an adult, she struggled to read and write. When she was arrested for loitering, she misunderstood the offence and found herself in prison – but it was there that she had her first experience of the classroom. With some help, she has written the story of how she learned to read.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
What? I don’t understand.
Are you guilty? Please answer.
Yes sir.

Over a year later, I was released from the Freetown Female Correctional Centre in Sierra Leone. Why was I there? Because I had no idea what the word guilty meant and there was nobody to translate for me. I am a 35-year-old mother of five, arrested in a neighbourhood raid after a serious theft. When we were all taken to court, I made a wrong plea due to my lack of education. I made a wrong plea due to my lack of education. When I began my sentence, I decided to take up the opportunity of the literacy classes provided twice-weekly for the female inmates.

Like me, many of the other inmates were illiterate and had never been to school.

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