Lesotho: Improve Prison Conditions

23 September 2020

The government must urgently fix the country's prisons and bring them up to the acceptable standards for human habitation.

For a long time, our prisons have attracted negative attention due to overcrowding, poor diet and rampant disease. Despite the numerous reports of such terrible conditions, the authorities have always looked the other way and failed to take remedial action.

A few years ago, the office of the ombudsman produced a damning report on the state of these hell-holes euphemistically called correctional facilities.

The ombudsman found that the Berea, Leribe, Butha-Buthe, Mokhotlong and Quthing Prisons were overcrowded. They collectively exceeded their carrying capacities by 40 percent.

For example, the Berea prison had 235 inmates even though its carrying capacity was only 150.

Butha-Buthe prison had 202 inmates against its capacity of 122 while Mokhotlong prison had 150 inmates against a capacity of just 80.

In Quthing 137 inmates were crammed in a prison built for just 60 people.

In Leribe a cell meant for 16 had 30 inmates. The ombudsman described the cell at Leribe prison as "simply not suitable for human habitation let alone prisoners".

The ombudsman also criticised the diet and living conditions of prisoners. There was a shortage of uniforms and blankets for prisoners, the ombudsman noted.

The report warned that diseases like Tuberculosis and AIDS could spread among the prisoners unless preventative measures were implemented.

It appears the authorities were not moved at all by the ombudsman's report because an African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) delegation which later visited the country on a fact-finding mission from 8 to 12 October 2018 observed the same deplorable conditions.

The ACHPR condemned the state of the prisons, saying they were not compliant with international standards due to "issues of overcrowding and unacceptable remand time with some inmates having spent more than seven years on remand".

It called on the government to immediately release all suspects who have exceeded the legally acceptable remand time. It also implored the government to bring prison facilities and conditions up to the acceptable international standards.

Still nothing was done and the prisons have remained in that same sordid state.

Lately, the Maseru prison has been the subject of a Netflix documentary on some of the world's toughest prisons.

Titled "Inside the world's toughest prisons", the documentary was released two months ago in July.

It is hosted by one Raphael Rowe who has previously featured other "tough" jails in Papua New Guinea, Ukraine, Columbia, Costa Rica and Philippines.

"Maseru prison is an impoverished detention centre, filled with inmates doing time for rape. Many are HIV positive and sexual assaults are a way of life inside the prison.

"One of the things that's striking me is the level of poverty. This is quite a crazy bit of space, it's a bit like a bombsite. It's like rubble everywhere. Bricks piled up," Rowe says of the Maseru prison.

It is not clear when Rowe actually visited Maseru prison for the documentary.

As reported by the Sunday Express in its latest edition, Rowe's claims have now been backed up by two murder-accused soldiers Lance Corporal Leutsoa Motsieloa and Corporal Tšitso Ramoholi.

The duo is currently detained at the Maseru prison awaiting trial for the 2014 and 2015 murders of Police Sub-Inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko and former army commander Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao respectively.

They unsuccessfully petitioned the Constitutional Court to release them on bail.

The court on Friday dismissed their argument that their detention was unconstitutional as it violated their constitutional right to liberty.

However, the court advised them to bring up the issue of the inhuman conditions in the prison when their murder trials finally get underway.

We learned from their court papers that the prison conditions are dire. Prisoners are starved and 20 of them are forced to share a single tiny cell.

They said three prisoners were made to share a blanket thus exposing them to killer diseases such as Tuberculosis.

There is no running water in the prison and they are forced to bath in buckets of ice-cold water as there were no geysers.

Lance Corporal Motsieloa said as a result of the congestion and unhygienic conditions, diseases were prevalent in the prison.

"Tuberculosis and abscess diseases are rampant in the prison. One does not get medical assistance constantly as appointments have to be made first and sometimes one waits for a week to see a doctor," he said.

Lance Corporal Motsieloa and other inmates may have committed crimes and deserve to forfeit their rights to liberty and free movement. But that does not mean they should be subjected to degrading and inhuman conditions in the country's jails.

We therefore call on the government to address the concerns that have been raised about the state of our prisons. We are not saying they have to be improved to hotel standards but they must be fit for human habitation.

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