Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding, food shortages, lack of sanitary facilities, and inadequate medical care.
Physical Conditions: Inadequate space, bedding and mosquito netting, food, sanitation, ventilation, cooling, lighting, basic and emergency medical care, and potable water contributed to harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions in the country’s 16 prisons and detention centers. Prison officials misappropriated food and other items intended for inmates. Many prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors. The local press and the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Prison Fellowship Liberia (PFL) reported that prison officials threatened prisoners’ lives. The Ministry of Justice’s Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) reported three prisoner deaths through September 15.
According to the BCR, as of September approximately half of the country’s 2,023 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP). This prison operated at nearly two and one-half times its 375-person capacity; 63 percent were pretrial detainees. As of September 14, the MCP population of 917 individuals included seven women and four male juveniles, and there were approximately 20 women in other prisons. Prisons remained understaffed and prison personnel salaries were irregularly paid.
The BCR had eight vehicles but was often unable to transport prisoners and detainees to court or to a hospital. According to BCR officials, this was due to the breakdown of vehicles or lack of fuel. The LNP staff often used personal vehicles or commercial motor bikes to transport prisoners to or from court.
The Ministry of Justice funded the BCR; it did not have a funding allocation under the national budget. Due to inadequate funding, the BCR lacked funds for the purchase of adequate food, maintenance of prison facilities, fuel, vehicle maintenance, cellular or internet communications, and regular and timely payment of employees.
Medical services were available at most of the prisons but not on a daily or 24-hour basis. The only location where medical staff was available Monday through Friday was at the MCP. Health-care workers visited most other prisons and detention centers one to two times per week.
The Ministry of Health and County Health Teams had primary responsibility for the provision of medicines. The United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Carter Center, and PFL continued to provide medical services, medicines, and related training and to improve basic sanitary conditions at the MCP and other facilities where such services and conditions remained inadequate. The supply chain for medicines was weak throughout the country; prison medical staff often did not have access to necessary medicines. NGOs and community groups also provided medicines to treat seizures, skin infections, and mental health conditions. The ministry and county health teams replenished medications to treat malaria and tuberculosis only when stocks were exhausted. Since replenishment sometimes took weeks or months, inmates went without medication for lengthy periods.
There were reports of inadequate treatment for ailing inmates and inmates with disabilities. In March the BCR began identifying individuals with special needs, including those with tuberculosis, through screening provided by the Ministry of Health. While the law provides for compassionate release of prisoners who are ill, such release was uncommon because the government had yet to develop a policy to implement the law. Authorities determined whether to release a prisoner on an ad hoc basis. For example, authorities arbitrarily denied the request for compassionate release of a prisoner in Voinjama with prostate cancer who died a month after he submitted the request.
Authorities held men and women in separate cellblocks at the MCP, but in counties with smaller detention facilities, a single cell was designated for female prisoners, and juveniles were held with adults in the same cells. Except at the MCP, which had a juvenile cellblock, children were held in separate cells within adult cellblocks. Because many minors did not have identity documents, they were sometimes misidentified as adults and held in adult cellblocks. There were also reports of inmates in the juvenile facility reaching age 18 who were not transferred to the adult population. Pretrial detainees were generally held with convicted prisoners.
Conditions for women prisoners were somewhat better than for men; women inmates were less likely to suffer from overcrowding and had more freedom to move within the women’s section of facilities.
Administration: During the year, BCR capacity declined in part due to reduced support from the Corrections Advisory Unit (CAU) of UNMIL. The BCR relied heavily on the CAU for correctional officer training, logistical support, and other financial assistance. While the government continued to make efforts to improve recordkeeping on prisoners, the official process was manual and problems remained. Prior to the UNMIL drawdown, the BCR maintained a prison roll that included prisoners from all facilities at headquarters. After the drawdown, the BCR ceased preparation of the complete prison roll, modernization efforts, and the transfer of paper records from field facilities to headquarters. The roll included prisoner names, dates of entry into prison and sentencing, and courts of initial appearance, but it did not include court appearance dates and other relevant information. It was not always accurate.
Testing of an electronic recordkeeping system and a biometric intake processing system ceased. Developed through a cooperative international initiative by two NGOs and a donor country, progress ceased due to inconsistent access to electricity and the internet, lack of computer maintenance, virus attacks, and insufficient government support.
Authorities sometimes used alternatives to prison sentencing for nonviolent offenders, but courts failed to make adequate efforts to employ alternatives to incarceration at the pretrial stages of criminal proceedings. Courts issued probationary sentences in some cases for nonviolent offenders. A supervised pretrial release program has been used in circuit courts in conjunction with the Magistrate Sitting Program to expedite the administration of justice, but it was not widely used outside Monrovia. During the year public defenders introduced a plea-bargaining system in some courts. The law provides for bail, including release on the detainee’s own recognizance. The bail system, however, was inefficient and susceptible to corruption. No ombudsman system operated on behalf of prisoners and detainees.
Staff complaints prompted a July investigation of the prison system by the BCR in conjunction with the MOJ Internal Audit Division that revealed corruption in the distribution of food, including misappropriation. In prior years NGOs reported severe food shortages, but Ministry of Justice central administration records showed sufficient food purchased and sent to facility warehouses. In one instance at MCP, prison officials allegedly sold food taken from a BCR warehouse to inmates through a prison canteen. The prison superintendent in that case was dismissed but not charged and prosecuted after investigation.
The government did not make internal reports and investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions in prisons public; however, the BCR sometimes made prison statistics publicly available.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local human rights groups, international NGOs, the United Nations, the ICRC, diplomatic personnel, and media. Some human rights groups, including domestic and international organizations, regularly visited detainees at police headquarters and prisoners in the MCP.
Improvements: The ICRC worked with the BCR to implement a system-wide food chain management and distribution system, including mandatory recordkeeping for any food coming into the prison system. It also performed body mass index checks on all prisoners, every three months at the MCP and every six months at the other 15 facilities in the country. The ICRC provided therapeutic feeding supplements for underweight inmates at the MCP; the majority of them were newly arrived or inmates with pre-existing health problems.
The UNMIL CAU worked with the BCR to improve the latter’s accountability and adherence to international corrections standards. In addition to mentoring, advising, and capacity building, the unit assisted with refurbishment and rehabilitation of facilities. For example, UNMIL installed solar lights at 10 facilities and built a new cellblock in Robertsport. UNMIL officers also provided constant access to cellular, computers, and internet services helped increase communications among different prisons.
In late August, UNICEF funded renovation of the juvenile cells at the MCP. The ICRC provided soap to all prison facilities bimonthly, other hygiene items to the MCP, and essential medicines to all 16 prisons and detention centers. The ICRC also worked with the Ministry of Justice to improve water supply in five prisons, water infrastructure improvement in four prisons, and sanitation and waste infrastructure in four facilities. The ICRC also worked to establish a comprehensive prison health-care system and improve food distribution and documentation, renovated kitchens in three prisons, installed energy efficient stoves in four prisons, and did capacity building for prison maintenance teams so that facilities could perform basic repairs in-house. It built an exercise yard for cellblock D at the MCP that prison authorities began using during the year to give prisoners outdoor access for up to one hour a day. With the assistance of international donors, the government hired and trained 137 additional correctional officers during the year.