Sierra Leone's prisons: tough, but Ebola-free

Central Freetown’s maximum-security prison was built to house just 324. Today, over 1400 inmates are crammed between its walls.

Cells are packed, record keeping is haphazard and the authorities have barely enough resources to keep it all going. And to top it all off, there’s the lingering threat of Ebola.

“Just one single case would be devastating,” says Pious Bockarie, a UNDP Local Governance Specialist. “People live so close together, so transmission is a serious risk.”

But as the outbreak peaked, UNDP acted fast to keep Ebola out.

“UNDP wasted no time, and immediately set up an observation and isolation centre,” says Chief Superintendent James Tarawally, from the prison’s correctional service.

“Inmates come in from police cells and court cells. They’re observed for [the Ebola incubation period of] 21 days,” he says.

According to UNDP’s Bockarie: “with the new centre, and the regular health checks, no inmates should be placed in the main prison until they’re medically cleared.”

So far 186 prison staff have been trained in anti-Ebola transmission as part of UNDP’s support. Personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and other materials were handed over to keep both inmates and officers safe.

“It’s a disease that can recur, so we ought to be very ready for it,” says Dennis Hermann, Director of Human Resources at Sierra Leone’s Correctional Service. “We’re grateful to UNDP for all their support,” he says.

According Orla Kelly, UNDP Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Officer, the project will grow, with new functions planned for the observation centres as Ebola ebbs.

“We’re building observation units in four other correctional facilities around the country,” she says. “Later, we want to use them as rehabilitation centres. So we’re looking at training, workshops, libraries and other ways we can help the inmates prepare for life outside.”

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