COVID-19 impacts rights of prisoners

By Desmond Tunde Coker

Mafanta Correctional Centre. Photo Credit: SLCS

Prisons and detention facilities in Sierra Leone are high-risk environments for the spread of COVID-19, especially where they are overcrowded, cannot maintain adequate standards of physical distancing, poor sanitation and hygiene.

Efforts by the authorities to maintain social distancing and reduce risk of transmission of the Coronavirus resulted in the suspension of family visits, closure of the tuck shop and long term confinement in cells, resulting in violations of the rights of detainees.

Inmates and correctional service personnel at the Moyamba Correctional Centre (Photo Credit: Mohamed Konneh)

Alpha Kamara (not his real name) is an inmate at the Freetown maximum Correction Centre on Pademba Road. He told Premier News that, when news of the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Freetown’s central prison on April 28, 2020, causing alarm among detainees who lived in severely cramped conditions, the prisons authorities introduced tougher measures which worsened their living condition.

He said that some of the measures instituted by the authorities include: restricting movement of inmates within the correctional facility, suspending court sittings and closing the tuck shop (retail outlet) within the correctional facility. There was also the problem of overcrowding.

Kamara said that those harsh conditions under which they had been held led to riot on Wednesday April 29, 2020, in Sierra Leone’s biggest correctional centre in Freetown which resulted in the death of 30 (Thirty) inmates and a prison guard and dozens injured.

On that day, there were 1, 300 inmates (400% overcrowding) at the maximum prison, in a centre built to hold 324 inmates, according to the prison authorities.

The correctional service attributed the cause of the riot

Authorities at the Correctional Service said the institution is understaffed and 40% under strength.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Amnesty International reported that the inmates protested over health concerns after the first COVID-19 cases had been reported.

In July, Sierra Leone Correctional Services (SLCS) authorities reported the riot was sparked by overcrowding, an announcement that court sessions would be suspended for one month, COVID-19 health restrictions, and reports of a COVID-19 case at the prison.

In the context of a pandemic such as COVID-19, where the risk of contagion endangers the health and life of the population, States have a greater duty to prevent violations of the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, avoiding overcrowding and ensuring hygiene and sanitation in prisons and other detention centres, according to the United Nations Special Procedures and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

But it is apparently impossible for the government of Sierra Leone to uphold these principles.

Prison and detention centre conditions in Sierra Leone were harsh and life threatening because of food shortages; gross overcrowding due to an inefficient justice system and a lack of sufficient correctional facilities and personnel; physical abuse; lack of clean water; inadequate sanitary conditions; and a lack of medical care, according to the US Human Rights report for 2020.

According to the United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor report on Human Rights Practices in Sierra Leon which was released early this year, the country’s 21 prisons, designed to hold 2,375 inmates, held 3,808 as of August. “The most severe example of overcrowding was in the Freetown Male Correctional Centre, designed to hold 324 inmates, which instead held 1,407 individuals. Some prison cells measuring six feet by nine feet held nine or more inmates.”

The NGO Prison Watch and the Sierra Leone Correctional service (SLCS) reported that 13 prisons and detention centres were moderately overcrowded.

“In most cases pretrial detainees were held with convicted prisoners. The SLCS reported that as of August, of the 3,808 persons held in prisons and detention centres, 1,289 had been convicted,” the report shows.

The SLCS also reported one inmate jailed in 2007 had yet to appear in court.

SLCS authorities and human rights observers reported detention conditions remained below minimum international standards because of overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and insufficient medical attention.

The report shows that conditions in cells in police stations were poor, especially in small stations outside Freetown. “Lack of adequate physical facilities created life-threatening conditions for detainees. Holding cells in some facilities were often dark, with little ventilation, and inmates slept on bare floors, using mattresses and clothes as bedding. The Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) reported poor toilet facilities in some correctional centres. Inmates were often forced to use buckets as toilets,” the report indicates.

Cells often lacked proper lighting, bedding, ventilation, and protection from mosquitoes. For security reasons authorities refused to allow inmates to sleep under mosquito nets, requiring inmates to use chemical repellants instead. Most prisons did not have piped water, and some inmates lacked sufficient access to drinkable water. In September 2019 observers reported that in some facilities to avoid overcrowding in the common areas, authorities confined inmates to their cells for long periods without opportunity for movement.

Prison authorities issued bedding and blankets to inmates at the Freetown Female and Male Correctional Centres. Some mattresses were on the floor at the Male Correctional Centre. Conditions in detention centres, including lighting and ventilation, were generally better for female inmates than for male inmates.

As of August the SLCS reported 53 deaths in prisons and detention facilities due to malaria, respiratory infections, skin infections, hypertension, asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, kidney diseases, sickle cell disease, and typhoid fever. “The HRCSL confirmed the causes of death as reported by the SLCS were further related to prison conditions, such as overcrowding and poor hygiene conditions. The SLCS reported the government provided adequate sanitation and medications for inmates. In cases of medical emergencies, prison authorities transferred inmates to the nearest government hospitals. Officials referred female inmates to local hospitals for special care, and government hospitals complied with the requests.”

Leslie F. Cole- Showers is the national public Relations Officer of the Sierra Leone Correctional Service. He said some of restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus including, closing the tuck shop (retail outlet) within the correctional facility and the restriction of movement of inmates, the suspension of visitation, have been lifted by the authorities.

He added that “Initially, when COVID just came, we did our best to revive the Ebola prevention blueprint for all our centres. We were in the advanced stage when we had the index case in the Pademba Road centre.”

He said that case made them speed up their arrangement and finished quickly. “All those who eventually contracted the virus, including the index case, were isolated in a health facility constructed in the Former Special Court Complex. The cases went up to 30 at some point, but our health professionals did turn up with skills enough to bring all the said cases to zero level,” Cole-Showers said.

He said that when they had that index case, initially, they didn’t have all the requisite medical tools to stem the spread of the virus.

Reducing overcrowding in Correctional Centres

Cole-Showers said that overcrowding, especially in the Pademba road Centre, has reduced. “In the years 2016, 2017, 2018, and early 2019, we used to have over 2,000 inmates in Pademba Road alone, a centre that was built to house 324 inmates. In October 2019, upon the completion of the refurbishment of 2 blocks in the Mafanta Centre and the construction of a new centre in Waterloo, inmates were commuted to those places in order to soften overcrowding. Those constructions provided 410 additional spaces to our original capacity of 1,583.”

“Also, the construction of centres in Karene and Falaba districts is underway.”

The national PRO said that the Correctional Service is getting all the support it needs from government and donor partners (UNDP & INL) to reduce overcrowding in correctional centres.

The head of the Communication Unit, judiciary of Sierra Leone, Elkass Sannoh said that to ensure speedy trial, the Chief Justice of Sierra Leone, Hon Desmond Babatunde Edwards empaneled 10 judges to preside on the first ever Open Prison Court.

The aim of the Court is to ensure decongestion at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre and Human rights of inmates.

He added that 100 inmates appeared before the judges, and that the Chief Justice has maintained that his leadership has ensured that inmate population reduce from over 2000 to under 2000.