Monrovia – The Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) has joined the national fight against the spread of the corona virus (COVID-19) by seeking the expedited, safe release of hundreds of pretrial detainees from Liberia’s overcrowded prisons.
The LNBA is an umbrella organization responsible for serving and regulating the practice of all legal practitioners. However, the LNBA also strives to deliver citizen access to justice through its Legal Aid Clinics (LAC) currently operating in Monserrado County and the surrounding Counties of Margibi, Bomi, Grand Bassa, and Bong.
As the Liberian government announced a State of Emergency (SoE) in March 2020, the LNBA/LAC ramped up its efforts to decongest Liberia’s overcrowded prisons in order to prevent the virus’ spread and avert a deadly disaster that could result from a COVID-19 outbreak amongst Liberia’s prison population.
For example, before LNBA launched this initiative to relieve Liberia’s overcrowded prisons, the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP) was home to over 1,300 prisoners despite having a recommended prison capacity of 374 prisoners. Over the past 2 months, LAC advocacy has triggered the court ordered release of nearly 200 PTDs.
According to the LNBA, health protocols announced by Liberia’s health authorities – including regular washing of hands and social distancing – are practically impossible at MCP and other prisons due to lack of resource and overcrowding.
Here, the LNBA stresses that a substantial degree of prison overcrowding is avoidable because most of Liberia’s prison population are pre-trial detainees (PTDs) accused of non-violent criminal offences who, once confined , frequently remain behind bars well beyond the statutory period allowed under Liberian law.
Since 2017, LNBA/LAC staff have been advocating for the immediate release of these PTDs with support from USAID’s Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program (LPAC). But when the SoE took hold in late March, the LAC leveraged LPAC support and LNBA resources to rapidly expand LAC services to meet the COVID moment.
LAC not only secured the release of a record number of PTDs over a 10 week period, but LAC interns and caseworkers also provided all prisoners released by the courts in Montserrado and Margibi Counties, and their families, with personal protective equipment (PPEs) including hand sanitizers, nose masks and COVID-19 personal safety instructions published by the USA CDC. Since PTDs typically leave prison with no means of safe transport home, USAID/LPAC and LNBA are ensuring safe passage home to each former detainee in a vehicle travelling under the GOL’s strict COVID-19 travel guidelines.
According to Cllr. Joyce Reeves Woods, the Chair of the LNBA/LAC Committee, the provision of pro bono legal services to indigent persons is crucial because without it, these defendants would sit in pretrial detention for extended periods without trial, often suffering a greater injustice than the State has alleged they committed themselves. The LAC Chair lauded LPAC for its support and plans to expand this PTD release initiative to its other LAC offices in Grand Bassa, Bong and Bomi counties. She also praised the hard work of Pro Bono lawyers, LAC caseworkers, and LPAC-sponsored law students from the University of Liberia’s Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law who support LAC on a pro bono basis.
For his part, Chief of Party of USAID/LPAC, Mr. John Furnari expressed relief that – as of late May 2020- the MCP has not yet reported any COVID-19 cases. However, he cautioned that the long (14 day) COVID-19 incubation period, and Liberia’s limited ability to test its population rendered LAC duty-bound to provide PPE to their PTD clients for their protection, and that of the families and communities to which they are returning.
Mr. Furnari also praised the LNBA Executive Committee for creating a special COVID-19 Committee led by Dr/Atty. Mohammed Sheriff to support the GOL’s COVID-19 Response Team by, among other actions, conducting Prison Assessments in partnership with NPHIL using the World Health Organization’s prison assessment standards and tools.
He hopes to be able to extend LPAC support in the coming days so that LNBA-led prison assessments and LAC’s PTD release efforts may extend beyond Monserrado and Margibi County to other counties where LNBA/LACs operate.