“We are packed inside prison walls like sardines in a plastic carton”, says 22 year old Ibrahim, who has been imprisoned at the Pademba Road Prison in Freetown, Sierra Leone since September.
Ibrahim made his comments to members of a World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation, which visited Central Prison in recently, as part of a human rights training programme in Sierra Leone.
His honest account about living conditions in prison was echoed by fellow inmates, who clapped their hands to support him while he spoke. These prisoners gathered in an open space inside the prison compound where they spoke to the WCC delegation along with prison officials.
The delegation included human rights defenders from Togo, Ivory Coast, Libreria, Guinea and Sierra Leone, along with WCC staff.
Ibrahim was jailed for the offence of driving on an unauthorised route. He cannot afford a lawyer nor arrange for his bail. He is not the only one in this situation. Several prisoners shared stories of their imprisonment, complaining about the living conditions in the prison.
Fifteen prisoners, who were allowed to speak in front of the officers, said they had no opportunity for a trial. Most of them were imprisoned for months and years, and had no means of affording legal aid. Several were in for petty crimes, which could have been settled by the police, or through traditional African ways of dispute settlement.
The WCC delegation also visited prison cells. They found conditions inside the cells to be very poor and in violation of basic human rights. They witnessed prisoners crammed into dirty cells, exposed to infections, with inadequate food, drinking water and sanitary facilities. There was no bedding provided for most of the prisoners, and many had to sleep on the floor.
The Central Prison, which has the capacity to accommodate around 350 prisoners, was packed with 1,243 prisoners. Out of this number, 362 are on remand awaiting court trial, two were sentenced to life imprisonment, while the rest are imprisoned without trial awaiting prosecution.
Ms Aaffi Alaffman, a member of the WCC delegation, who works to provide free legal aid to such prisoners, said, “Anyone accused of a certain crime should be brought before a court of law within a time limit, and the trial should be arranged. However there is a serious dearth of such arrangements in our legal system”.
Alaffman’s concern is significant, as the accused when held in custody pending trial, are entitled to treatment in accordance with the United Nations Minimum Standard Rules of Detention.
“Fair treatment for a prisoner is denied in Sierra Leone’s present situation”, lamented another legal practitioner, Ms Dauie Cole, who facilitated the WCC delegation’s interactions with the prisoners.
Prison conditions in Sierra Leone reflect gaps in standard judicial mechanisms. The country has inherited a colonial legal system which is outdated, and this impacts its legal system in many ways. This is one reason why the government is unable to guarantee protection of human rights. The convicted people are living in conditions which are neither in line with the national laws nor consistent with international standards.
The delegation stressed the government’s obligation to protect prisoners from “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. The prisoners did not complain about torture inside the prison.
The WCC delegation expressed deep concern over the situation. They recalled recommendations made during the Universal Periodic Review of Sierra Leone at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011, urging the government to improve conditions in prisons and detention centres, creating accessibility to legal representation, strengthening legal aid programmes, and diminishing lengthy periods of detention without trial.
© Mathews George Chunakara is Director of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.