Conditions of prisons across Liberia have reached life-threatening stage due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary environment, and medical care, according to the United States Department.
The 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices here quote the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) at the Ministry of Justice as reporting, the prison population in the country’s 16 facilities is almost double its planned capacity.
The Report published Wednesday, 11 March notes that approximately one-half of the country’s 2,700 prisoners are at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP), originally built for 374 detainees, now holds 1,262 inmates.
Specifically, it says Prison Fellowship Liberia (PFL), a local group, details that overcrowding in Block D of the MCP subjects prisoners to sleep in shifts, including 74 percent pretrial detainees.
The Report released annually, continues that as of December, prison population countrywide included 75 women and 52 juveniles, adding, “The majority of juveniles were in pretrial detention. Pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held together. In some cases men and women were held together, and juveniles were held with adults.”
The 17 deaths recorded at the Monrovia Central Prison were attributed to medical reasons, including anemia, heart conditions, and infectious diseases, likely exacerbated by inadequate care.
Access to food and medical care are said to be inadequate for inmates, and the General Services Agency, which does not have oversight responsibility for prisons, reportedly provided two shipments of rice when the Ministry of Justice was unable to provide funding for food, the Report quotes the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitations, responsible for prisons here.
It also highlights that during the period under review, Prison Fellowship Liberia reported that Kakata Prison went without rice for three weeks, during which time prisoners relied on friends and family members for food, while officials at Bomi County Prison reportedly purchased rice with their own money, as they had not received a supply in August.
“The MCP sometimes served rice alone, and prisoners purchased oil to supplement their diet. In a number of locations, prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors in accordance with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”
Lofa County Prison, the Report says, grew approximately 660 pounds of rice, cassava, corn, and beans, which prisoners farmed and used to supplement their diet. Six of the prisons had medical clinics while the rest were visited by nurses, and the BCR reported nurses were scheduled to visit the prisons twice a week but rarely adhered to the schedule, and some facilities went weeks without medical staff.
The Ministry of Health and county health teams have primary responsibility for the provision of medicines, but supply chain is weak throughout the country, and prison medical staff often lacks access to necessary medicines.
The Report points to inadequate treatment for ailing inmates, including inmates with disabilities and authorities determined whether to release an ill prisoner on an ad hoc basis, while most are quarantined after presenting symptoms rather than released.
However, the Report notes that conditions for women prisoners are somewhat better than for men, saying, women inmates are less likely to suffer from overcrowding and have more freedom to move within the women’s section of facilities.
It quotes the Independent National Commission on Human Rights as saying, female inmates’ personal hygiene needs are often not addressed, and many female detainees lack sanitary items unless provided by family or NGOs, but stocks quickly run out.
The superintendent of Buchanan Central Prison in Grand Bassa County reportedly ordered two female guards to beat a female inmate for allegedly insulting the superintendent, but as of November, three employees were suspended pending a final decision. The BCR also investigated one allegation of a staff member having sex with a female inmate. However, the allegation was subsequently dismissed as untrue, according to the State Department 2019 Human Rights Report, specifically highlighting prison conditions in Liberia.
Among others, it also records arbitrary killings by police; arbitrary detention by government officials; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; substantial restrictions on free expression and the press, including site blocking; official corruption; lack of accountability in cases of violence against women due to government inaction in some instances, including rape, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation/cutting and trafficking in persons.By Jonathan Browne