Liberia: Inmates Reportedly Dying Slowly From Hunger At Gbarnga Prison

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GBARNGA, Bong County – As visitors approach the “Hague” bloc at Gbarnga Central Prison, a sea of hands-waving tin cups automatically jerk through the bars of the dark cells.

“Get back!” shouts a prison guard as the over 35 detainees crammed inside a building originally meant to house 10. Up to seven inmates live in less than four square meters of space. An overpowering stench of urine and mold billows out into the yard.

In the turmoil of the shouts, some of the prisoners drew back to their spots on a tattered mat on the floor that aside from a few plastic bowls is the only object in the cell.

But the guard is jumpy and cuts short the visit, prohibiting any further interaction with the detainees.

Rights organizations working in Gbarnga – and even prison officials themselves – say the conditions of inmates do not fulfill even minimum international human rights standards.

In the Gbarnga Central Prison, inmates at the “Hague” bloc are locked up all day long, said a prison official.

“They are allowed out only rarely, for a few minutes, one by one,” he said. 

Most of the inmates in this bloc are utterly alone and never receive visitors – their families living too far away and having abandoned them for fear of being associated with their crimes, rights group sources say.

‘Terrible’ food

If conditions for the “Hague” bloc inmates are harsh, they are hardly any better for other prisoners. For the sick and weak, incarceration can be tantamount to a sentence to death.

“The two main problems in prisons in Liberia are congestion and lack of food,” said a prison guard who requested anonymity. 

The Gbarnga Central Prison is a clear example. About 230 detainees are currently crammed in the prison building – constructed nearly 20 years ago – designed for about 130.

Prison officials say the prison holds up to two times its capacity.

In such conditions, just surviving is a daily battle, according to 38-year-old Joshua Flomo who was condemned to four years in prison in 2015 for armed robbery.

“You fight for a scrap of the blanket, a piece of soap, a bit of food or medicine if you get sick,” said Flomo. 

“Prisoners fight for space on the floor to sleep, they fight not to become depressed, and not to be victims of violence. They fight to survive.”

Some of the inmates at the Gbarnga Central Prison narrated harrowing experiences when FrontPageAfrica visited the place.

“The food we eat is not fit for dogs,” said an inmate who requested not to be identified,” he said.

“They give us watery a day and is not regular. Many of us try to find other ways of feeding ourselves because the food is just tasteless. We’re dying slowly from hunger.

“We have nothing to wash our toilet. All we use is ash to try and reduce the smell. I have not spent two weeks here without having one infection or the other,” he added.

“We do various labor in this prison to make ends meet. But you cannot survive here, unless you have someone from outside who attends to you every week.”

Although efforts by this reporter to reach the female inmates was not successful, some prison officials who spoke with FrontPageAfrica said their situation is not different. 

Conditions favor disease

Lack of food moreover aggravates already poor hygiene conditions. Aaron Juakollie, Program Officer of the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND), said that malnutrition makes prisoners highly vulnerable to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or skin diseases caused by lack of hygiene.

We are devoured by mosquitoes, we all suffer malaria but don’t have bed nets and the hospital has no medicine except paracetamol,” said one Charles, 32, who has been incarcerated since January 2021. 

Prison conditions weigh heavily on the detainees, often causing depression and other psychological problems, according to Juakollie.  And prison personnel are not trained to handle such issues, he said.

To survive in their environment, some prisoners have taken things into their own hands.

“They have created a veritable government,” Juakollie said. “One prisoner is president, another police chief, another head of justice.” He added that some prison officials see the initiative as a positive thing because it helps foster order in their cells.

Former prisoner Flomo said, “Some prison ‘leaders’ invent rules that are impossible to follow.” Punishment generally comes in the form of an order to do chores, such as washing the clothes of ‘chiefs,’ but often prisoners pay for misdeeds by being beaten.

Despite efforts by inmates to impose some sort of organization, prison riots are common, a prison official said.

Inmates’ rights violated during Covid-19

From the lack of medical care at the Gbarnga Central Prison to severe overcrowding and being abruptly cut off from the world outside, incarcerated inmates have had to endure the worst form of human rights violations in the ongoing COVID-10 pandemic. 

Inmates are being locked in their cells for more than 90% of the day to keep them safe from Covid-19, a prison official told FrontPageAfrica. 

And the extra restrictions, which began since the new variant of Covid 19 few months ago, have led to a decline in their mental and physical health and a rise in drug taking and self-harm, Juakollie said.

Normally, prisoners should spend between one and two hours a day outside their cells.

But pandemic restrictions have meant the suspension of family visits. One inmate told FrontPageAfrica: 

We’re prison while in prison,” one inmate told FrontPageAfrica.

Reactions to Allegations

Responding to the issues raised by the inmates, a prison official said although some of the claims were being checked, most of the allegations could not be true.

“The prison population is such that you may have from 7 to 8 in a cell room; that is when it is not congested. A part of the room is carved out for their convenience. The door is usually a short door, not isolated from the toilet, for security reasons. And it’s always water system. It cannot be true that the toilet will smell so bad,” he said.

The prison official was reacting to claims that some of the inmates are locked up in smelly toilets to serve as punishments, among other allegations.

He also refuted the allegations that inmates were made to clear the sewage cans when it is filled up.

“We have sewage trucks, I don’t know whether we will leave sewage trucks and ask them to start packing the toilet. Where will they take the waste to? However, when the sewage trucks are working, a few of them may be asked to join them in either controlling the hose, which any other person does. I have done it in my own house. And when they finish, they are asked to clear the place to keep it neat.

“You know that one of the natural odor killing instruments is charcoal. I do it in my house, so there is no big story that you are asked to use wood ash or charcoal to douse the smell,” he added.

This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through its Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with FrontPage Africa.

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