Liberia’s awful prison conditions lead to jail breaks

When over 200 prisoners broke out of Monrovia Central Prison just before Christmas, some may have felt that the inmates, many of them on remand, were justified in their actions. The prison system in Liberia, which is still recovering from a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, is notoriously bad, with inmates facing serious overcrowding and brutality from prison officers.

The Liberian government has often been criticized for turning a blind eye to the increasingly poor conditions in prison facilities across the country.

“Facilities at the Monrovia Central Prison are so deplorable that immediately you have been processed … you begin to feel neglected and will even contemplate ending it all in that filthy place,” Victor Toe, who has been in and out of the prison, said.

The National Human Rights Centre of Liberia and the Liberian Red Cross have both expressed dismay at the “outright neglect of people seeking rehabilitation.”

“Poor sanitary conditions in prison cells, coupled with the fact that most of the inmates do not take a bath for days after incarceration and compounded by overcrowding are reasons that should claim the attention of the country and world,” the National Human Rights Centre of Liberia said.

The centre has in the past said it had credible reports that inmates were given one tablespoon of rice per day, made to sleep on bare floors and were even “tortured, humiliated and flogged” by other inmates acting on the instructions of prison guards.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) says that the conditions in the prisons are due to “logistical and manpower inadequacies” in most detention facilities.

The UN even has Nepalese peacekeepers helping to guard Monrovia Central Prison, where 1,000 inmates are crammed into a facility designed to hold far fewer.

UNMIL was involved in the manhunt for the 200 escapees, firing warning shots into the air as the prisoners ran amok through Monrovia. The peacekeepers are not mandated to fire upon escaping inmates and were largely brushed aside during the mass break-out.

UNMIL Police Commissioner Henrik Stiernblad, who blamed the mass escape on “old structures and security lapses” said that the mission has been attempting to use donor funds to improve the prison system.

But there seems to be a long way to go.

“Generally, prisons are meant to help rehabilitate people who have committed crimes with a view to correct their shortcomings and once more become useful citizens but this is not the case in Liberian prisons,” said Francis Togba, who served a five-month term for assault on an 18-year-old girl in 2005.

Togba, a high school graduate, said: “Most inmates have given up hope of ever gaining their release and are gradually adapting to the horrible and harsh conditions in dilapidated Liberian prisons.”

Delays in the prosecution of cases is not helping the situation, and this was believed to have been one of the reasons behind December’s jail break.

Many of those who escaped had been awaiting trial for long periods of time and apparently decided they wanted to return home to their families for Christmas.

A delegation of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has urged the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to seriously address the question of speedy trials for the accused.

The commission visited several prisons, pointing to what it termed the “deplorable and humiliating conditions of the prisons they visited, especially the Monrovia Central Prison.”

The Ministry of Justice responded by saying it was “doing everything within its power to improve facilities in keeping with international standards.”

But residents in Monrovia who were terrorized by the escapees, some of whom remain at large, disagree that the government is doing enough.

“Until the government takes corrective measures … to ensure speedy trials of cases as well as improve the deplorable conditions in prisons, mass prisoner escapes will continue unabated,” said John Mensah, a Ghanaian fisherman from a nearby community.

Source: The Earth Times

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