Amnesty International has disclosed that some prison conditions in Liberia are so poor that they violate basic human rights with inmates crowded into dirty cells without adequate food, water or healthcare.
It added that out of four of Liberia's 15 prison facilities visited, "Inmates suffer permanent damage to their physical and mental health as a result of their incarceration and most haven't even been convicted of a crime-they're simply waiting for a trial date." said Amnesty International.
According to the Deputy Program Officer for Africa, Tawanda Hondora, "There was no running water in any of the prison facilities we visited and the smell of sewage is overwhelming in most of the cells."
He said the Government of Liberia in conjunction with its development partners, has taken positive steps such as improving sanitation at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP) and also wants prison health services included in the government 10-year national health and policy plan. However, he said much more is needed to be done before the state meets prisoners' basic needs.
The government through the Ministry of Justice has sharply responded to Amnesty International's Report and said it has already put into place several processes that have addressed some of the issues raised in the report.
Mr. Hondora said severe congestion in some prisons has a serious effect on the health and safety of prisoners. He said Monrovia Central Prison, Liberia's largest, was designed to accommodate 374 inmates, but in July 2011 when a team from the Amnesty International visited the prison, "839 prisoners;" were seen, adding that conditions were particularly bad in one block where eight men were housed in cells 2x3 metres with only a tiny window for ventilation.
"In some cells, there isn't room for all inmates to lie down at the same time so they sleep in shifts," said Tawanda Hondora
Mr. Hondora said "due to a lack of floor space in the prisons, some inmates had created makeshift hammocks made of grain sacks slung three or four metres above ground. Prisoners and staff said people sometimes break their ribs or dislocate their shoulders falling from the hammocks at night."
He said bedding is scarce and inmates often do not have a mattress or blanket. He furthered that almost all inmates complained of body aches because they had to sleep on the floor, which is worse in rainy season when the floor is cold and damp.
"Another major concern was the lack of healthcare for inmates. Prisons struggle to provide medical care because of a lack of trained staff and essential drugs. Common conditions such as malaria, skin infections and eye problems are often not treated and inmates are only transferred to a hospital in an emergency." Mr. Hondore noted.
Mr. Hondore disclosed that an injured inmate at the MCP waited eight days to be taken to a clinic. He said the inmate had an open fracture (bone protruding through the skin) of his left arm which was visibly deformed, swollen and infected.
"Under Liberian law, prisoners must undergo basic health assessment when they come to prison, but this simply isn't happening. These assessments could help control the spread of communicable diseases as well as provide valuable data about pre-existing medical conditions and those contracted while in prison." The Amnesty Director noted.
"In all circumstances the government has a clear and binding obligation not to expose prison inmates to conditions that constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," said Tawanda Hondora.
In response, the Assistant Minister of Justice for Bureau of Correction and Rehabilitation, Mr. Hilary S. Sirleaf, said the report did not take into account the improvement made in prison facilities across the country.
He added that the Bureau of Correction has a system in place to address sanitary issues in all of its facilities across the country. On the issue of food for inmates, Minister Sirleaf said although Liberia does not feed inmates three times a day as required by international standard, however, he said inmates are currently being fed twice a day.
He said the government treats inmates twice a week across the country and is currently digging a well at the MCP to further provide adequate water supply for the inmates and others.
Commenting on the issue of overcrowding situation in the MCP, Minister Sirleaf said overcrowding is a global problem and that the government has taken steps to reduce the number of inmates at the prison. He also named the Magistrate sitting-in program at the prison as another step in reducing overcrowding in the prisons.
According to Mr. Sirleaf, the Government of Liberia has secured a land to construct a new prison facility for inmates. He said currently there are 1,490 prisoners in all of the 15 prison facilities across the country and MCP play host to 803 prisoners.
He accused Amnesty International of illegally entering the prison facilities with cameras and that photograph in the report does not reflect the current reality.
The Executive Director of Prison Fellowship Liberia, Mr. Francis S. Kollie, thanked Amnesty International for the report and said it will address some of the problems in prison facilities across the country. He said the government has made some strives in some areas in addressing the issues raised in the report.