Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding and inadequate medical care. Prisoners also complained of inadequate food, although one of the country’s largest prisons, in Zwedru, grew most of its own food (except rice).
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 16 prisons and detention centers. Prison officials misappropriated food and other items intended for inmates; as of August after disciplinary procedures, the Ministry of Justice’s BCR had demoted one superintendent for misappropriation of food and other resources associated with feeding of prisoners. Many 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. According to the BCR, the government’s food allocation is sufficient to meet daily calorie requirements, and both the allocation to prisons and distribution to prisoners were tracked by the BCR and were available upon request. The BCR reported five prisoner deaths through July 31. Four of these deaths were due to natural causes, and one sentenced prisoner was ruled a suicide by medical personnel.
Gross overcrowding continued to be a problem. The UNMIL Human Rights and Protection Section (HRPS) reported the total BCR prison population in the country was 200 percent higher than the planned capacity. In eight of the 16 BCR facilities, detention figures were 200 to 400 percent more than planned capacity. According to the BCR, as of July approximately one-half of the country’s 2,211 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP). MCP’s official capacity is 375 detainees, but the prison held 1,071 in July of whom 75 percent (805) were pretrial detainees. As of July 26, the prison population countrywide included 51 women, of whom 15 were assigned to the MCP, which also held 25 male juveniles, 22 of whom were in pretrial detention. The BCR administration complained of understaffing, but 137 newly trained corrections officers were hired in August. No comprehensive staffing document exists to verify BCR staffing claims.
In some locations the BCR relied on the LNP to provide court and medical escorts; other locations relied on court officers to transport prisoners to court; still other locations reportedly had to call the county ambulance to transport prisoners and escorts to the hospital. The MCP had adequate vehicles to meet its transportation requirements (18 cars, trucks, and buses, and 11 motorcycles) and receives fuel coupons from the BCR administration when needed.
The Ministry of Justice funded the BCR, which did not have a specific funding allocation beyond those funds under the national budget. The BCR lacked funds for the maintenance of prison facilities, fuel, vehicle maintenance, cellular or internet communications, and regular and timely payment of employees, which remained a government-wide problem. According to the UNMIL HRPS, most prisons and facilities were far below UN minimum standards, in unacceptable condition, and often had leaking roofs, cracks in the walls, and in some cases lacked basic elements like septic tanks or electricity.
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 BCR’s budget included a small line item to supplement medicines to cover those that the Ministry of Health cannot provide. The Carter Center, Don Bosco Catholic Services, and the Catholic Sisters provided medical services, medicines, nutritional supplements, food, and related training to improve basic sanitary conditions at the MCP. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Partners in Health and the Ministry of Health provided health services to all facilities. 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. At the MCP, the BCR works to identify individuals with special needs, including those with tuberculosis through screening provided by the Ministry of Health and Partners in Health. Although the law provides for compassionate release of prisoners who are ill, such release was uncommon. Authorities determined whether to release an ill prisoner on an ad hoc basis, and most were quarantined after presenting symptoms rather than being released. As a result public health in prisons and BCR’s ability to respond and contain disease among the prison population was poor.
Authorities held men and women in separate cellblocks at the MCP, but in counties with smaller detention facilities, authorities designated a single cell for female prisoners and held juveniles in the same cells with adults. In Barclayville the police have one cell while BCR has the other, as there are only two cells in the station. There is no designated cell for females or juveniles, and as of July, one female detainee in Barclayville was being held in the conference room. 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 at the time the court issued commitment orders, they were sometimes misidentified by the courts as adults, issued confinement orders as adults, and therefore held in adult cellblocks. There were also reports by NGOs and observers 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. The UN HRPS stated female inmates’ personal hygiene needs were not accounted for, indicating that many female detainees lacked sanitary items.
Administration: UNMIL’s Corrections Advisory Unit (CAU) departed on June 30. The BCR has its own training staff, which conducted the last two preservice trainings (the CAU and Swedish government provided financial support for logistics and uniforms). To allay the end of UNMIL’s support for BCR’s electronic recordkeeping system, the BCR increased use of its own data collections and systems. BCR reporting expanded to capture data regarding prisoners with mental and physical disabilities. National records officers communicate (via telephone) weekly with facility records officers to collect updated information, and share a monthly roll with county attorneys; however, the transfer of paper records to Monrovia remained inadequate.
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 stopped due to a repeatedly broken computer, inconsistent access to electricity and the internet, lack of computer maintenance, virus attacks, the corrosive effect of salt air on electronic equipment, 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. In Monrovia as of August, magistrates were sentencing prisoners with minor offenses who otherwise could receive sentences ranging from probation to prison terms up to one year in length. Circuit courts used a supervised pretrial release programs in conjunction with the Magistrate Sitting Program, established to expedite the trials of persons detained at the MCP, but the program was not widely used outside Monrovia. Public defenders continued to use 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 Justice Ministry’s 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. The BCR investigated three superintendents during the year: two received demotions for misappropriation of resources, and one was fired.
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. Although not systematically implemented, the BCR has a media policy that dictates the release of information, including in response to requests from the public.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local human rights groups, the UNMIL HRPS, international NGOs, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (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. The Liberian Independent National Commission of Human Rights (INCHR) also had access to and visited all facilities.
Improvements: During the first half of the year, UNMIL’s CAU completed a quick-impact project at the MCP that set up a vocational tailoring program for approximately 40 inmates. UNMIL also provided the BCR with assistance in training and identifying officers for deployment on UN Peacekeeping missions. Upon its departure, UNMIL’s CAU donated its computers and other electronic equipment.
The ICRC worked with the BCR through April to train staff at every prison to do a body-mass index check quarterly and to submit the reports to the BCR Administration.