Monrovia - in Liberia, suspected criminals could languish in overcrowded prisons for years without trial. A special court inside the prison walls is giving hundreds of pre-trial detainee’s access to lawyers.
The large metal gate swings open into what is known as Monrovia Central Prison. Inmates begin to shout for attention through small windows on the second floor of a concrete cell block.
Strangers mostly look up and waves at them.
The strangers who drop an amount could be their only chance for hope that day.
"The conditions are horrible," he says"
". "Right now, a lot of them have skin infections, skin diseases, some of them have tuberculosis, and some are even malnourished."
Moses a 38-year-old father of four has been in Monrovia Central Prison for over a year for allegedly stabbing his friend.
"I'm just crying day and night," He says, "I don't know what to do."
It can be recalled the over crowdedness led to prison break, that prompted the Ministry of Justice and Judiciary to set up a temporary courtroom in the prison yard.
It decides whether prisoners have been held too long without due process. Francis Kollie of the prison fellowship and his team started by compiling a database.
"It tells us how many of them are here, how long they're here, what kind of crime they've committed," Kollie explained.
The data is then viewed by a Liberian legal aid lawyer.
Rather than having a trial, however, the lawyer discusses technicalities and constitutional rights with the judge and are set free.
Kollie said it is saddened that all the recommendations given to the government in reducing the prison have been ignored.
“The over crowdedness isn’t just in Monrovia but in other counties; we feel that the court, justice and regulatory authorities are not helping to address the plight of the inmates.”
“Prisons are sometimes overcrowded due to the magistrate’s interest in a complainant and will immediately issue a commitment without issuing a warning despite the charge,” he said.
A source at the Monrovia Central Prison disclosed that in past days, transportation remained a major hindrance in fast tracking cases.
“The past three days they haven’t come to the prison because we are told that the only vehicle is down, so our bosses have ordered us not to take anyone from the court specifically people who are committed for theft, simple assault, we are refusing them,” said the FPA prison source.
FPA prison source continued: “We who work with the prisoners are afraid; the prison is posing a threat to us because if there’s a jail-break we wouldn’t be able to contain them.”
The lack of cells to hold incoming inmates at the Monrovia Central Prison is now giving absolute freedom to suspected criminals and offenders of the law to gallivant in communities despite the security threats they may pose to citizens.
An officer of the Bureau of Correction and Rehabilitation confirmed to FrontPageAfrica that the Monrovia Central Prison has begun rejecting suspects committed by the courts to the prison center on ground that only suspects of certain crimes (crimes considered grave) would be accepted and committed to the prison.
Of recent, over 20 defendants were denied by the Superintendent of the Central Prison – something which the court has described as undermining the justice system.
Speaking to FPA, stipendiary magistrate of the Monrovia City Court Judge Kennedy Peabody disclosed that the decision of the prison superintendent to refuse incoming inmates was portraying the court as a toothless bull dog.
He averred that the Court was meant to hear and adjudicate cases and also to imprison breakers of the law.
“The Prison Superintendent said that this is not one of the crimes to commit the defendant. This is ridiculous because there are several aggravated assault cases that need to addressed,” Magistrate Peabody asserted.
Judge Peabody said the County Attorney on several occasions has intervened in making sure that defendants are incarcerated.
“I told my officers that whenever they take a defendant to the prison and the prison superintendent refuses to accept the defendant, that defendant should be left alone,” magistrate Peabody said.
The magistrate of the Monrovia City Court lamented that if the situation is not averted, any criminal could walk away anytime.
“It would also create problem in the communities."
"There are two sides to a coin, there are complaints of prison over crowdedness, but for the community, if someone commits aggravated assault and you allow them to go, they will take the law in their own hands because they know they will not be imprisoned,” he added.
Magistrate Peabody recommended the construction of a new prison compound taking into consideration the increasing population in Monrovia.
According to him, if the prison compound refuses suspects, one will think that the judges are being bribed.
It can be recalled Solicitor General clarified to FrontPage Africa that her offices at no time instructed the Superintendent of the Monrovia Central Prison to reject anyone committed to the prison by the courts.
In January of this year the Solicitor General Cllr. Betty M. Lamin-Blamo, was contacted on the over crowdedness of the prison she disclosed that there was a memorandum of understanding in June 2016 that sought to control how Writ of arrest was issued. This, according to her, was intended to address the over crowdedness of prisons.
Amnesty International – an international human rights watchdog – has continuously lamented the appalling condition of the Monrovia Central Prison.
Amnesty International reported that the Monrovia Central Prison – the second biggest prison in the country is currently holding more than twice its capacity.
The situation, according to Amnesty International, is forcing inmates to sleep in shifts because there is not enough room to lie down.
Adequate supply of food, water and health care has been a major challenge for the prison.
At the November opening of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, Bong County, Resident Judge Boimah Kontoe said the prison accommodates 100 inmates, but has 194 inmates.
Of the 194 inmates, 64 are convicts and 130 are pre-trial detainees. When the prison is overcrowded, it’s easy for inmates to escape, he said.
In January, 23 prisoners escaped. Eleven were caught, but others are still at-large, he said.
“Some of those who usually escaped prison are hardened criminals who may put our citizens in harm’s way,” he said.
An overcrowded prison is worrisome because it could lead to jailbreak, the judge said.
“We have to work as a Circuit to ensure that the figure is gradually reduced as cases may require,” Kontoe said.
Kontoe urged public defenders to effectively file motions on behalf of clients who remain in pre-trail detention beyond the statutory period.