Monrovia – Ma Mary (not her real name) is among 20 female inmates currently in jail at the Monrovia Central Prison (South Beach). Three of the 20 inmates have been sentenced while 17 others are pre-trial detainees.
“I want to speak on the Justice system in this country. I am a market woman out there but because of the bad justice system I find myself in this Prison three years one month, my children are out there no one is taking care of them”-Ma Mary, a prisoner
But for Ma Mary, she says she has been at the Monrovia Central Prison for more than three years. She believes that her pre-trial detention is unfair and she blames the country’s Justice System for her incarceration at the Monrovia central Prison where high core criminals are kept as she is yet to be arraigned in court to answer to accusations of rape.
Ma Mary in her late 30’s says prior to her incarceration she made livelihood as a local marketer to support her family of more than five.
“I want to speak on the bad Justice system in this country. I am a market woman out there but because of the justice system I find myself in this Prison three years one month, my children are out there no one is taking care of them”, she told reporters.
No justice for poor
She says there is no justice for people like her who do not have money.
“Sometimes we say within ourselves I am going to make myself clear because I know I am not guilty but I am looking at Liberia now that there is no justice for the poor.
I was accused of rape, can a woman rape this is a case for government to speedily try and know how this old lady committed gang rape. I have not gone for trial I been in this prison, no rehabilitation although I am a prisoner whatever the charge is I need to learn,” she said.
According to the outspoken inmate, like her, there are many of her colleagues who have spent more than three years at the Monrovia Central Prison and have not gone for trial.
Wearing a traditional lapper, with a T-shirt carrying slogans of women solidarity, she said, speaking from experience there are challenges facing female inmates who are taken to prison.
She claimed that on many occasions women are taken to prison without under cloths after spending days in prison at the Central Police station which she described as dirty and nasty place without even having to shower.
She said: “Even the great Police station we call central Police station is call hold your nose and pass that is where the government sent us.
They sent us there to suffer and at times we willingly choose not to escape because if your mind is clear you don’t want to escape to leave that kind of character behind you.
But at the end when you come to government the only thing they tell you is go to Jail at south Beach next Friday you will come for trial and that is the end of you. You will never see the court again”, she said.
She added: “We are here no control, at times we fight because we see no way out, it is all about correction here not rehabilitation if we try hiring lawyers they eat our money.
At times our own lawyers force us to plead guilty or they say to us give me this amount and force you to agree to what you did not do for me, most of the times I resist because I don’t want to do what they say.”
THINK to the rescue
In the wake of these challenges a local non- Governmental Organization Touch Humanity in Need of Kindness (THINK) with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on Wednesday as part of its humanitarian work launched a Juvenile and Women Rehabilitation Facility.
The facility according to Ms. Rosana Schaack, Executive Director THINK is a rehabilitation and skill training center with computers, a tailoring training center and a psychosocial and counseling center for inmates.
Ms. Schaack said: “This project is a pilot version of bigger Projects which seeks to address the correctional system challenges in offering comprehensive rehabilitation to victims and perpetrators of SGBV.
Currently, there are approximately 30% of prisoners are incarcerated for SGBV related offenses and this does not take into account of those persons who have been previously affected by SGBV”.
She continued “In all those categories of inmates coping with the factor leading to offending or exposing them to SGBV has not been addressed and most times it does not help the rehabilitation process. UNFP with funding from donors constructed the facility”.
For his part, Waldemar Brey Deputy Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary General in Liberia on rule of law wants the judiciary to reduce the number of people in Prison on pre-trial detention.
Mr. Brey said: “We are recommending that we should not just bring people to the court and lock them up. The law allows for different solutions and different alternatives. We are not suggesting that anything illegal is being done.
So, let’s look at the full consequences of the law let’s use it to look at bond, let’s use it to release people particularly for first time offenders. People have been detained for more than the tenure they will serve in a case if they had been tried and found guilty.”
Harsh prison conditions
The justice system of Liberia continues to be criticized. The US State department in its 2015 report outlined harsh prison conditions and at time life threatening due to overcrowding, food shortages, lack of sanitary facilities and inadequate medical care.
“Inadequate space, bedding and mosquito netting, food, sanitation, ventilation, cooling, lighting, basic and emergency medical care, and potable water contributed to harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions in the country 15 prisons and detention centers. Many prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors”, stated the report.
The report citing the BCR, noted that approximately half of the country’s 2,203 prisoners were at Monrovia Central Prison (MCP).
“This prison operated at nearly three times its 375-person capacity because of the large number of pre-trial detainees.
Judges ‘Influenced by Corruption’
Like previous years, the report had no improved report for the Liberian judiciary, slamming the judiciary branch for lack of independence.
“Judges and magistrates were subject to influence and corruption. Uneven application of the law and unequal distribution of personnel and resources remained problems throughout the judicial system.
The government continued efforts to harmonize the traditional and formal justice systems, in particular through campaigns focused on trying criminal cases in formal courts. These cases included murder, rape, and human trafficking, as well as some civil cases that could be resolved in either formal or traditional systems.”
Studies conducted by the United Nations office on Drugs and crimes shows that, emerging from a prolonged civil war; Liberia has made considerable efforts to rebuild its public institutions. Among these, building the capacity of the criminal justice system has been of particular concern, given that a large percentage of prisoners await trial within Liberia’s prisons.
In recent years, efforts to strengthen the criminal justice system in the country have concentrated on rebuilding the capacity of the prosecution and the judiciary, and less attention has been given to increasing the capacity of defence lawyers.
An assessment conducted in 2010 by UNODC found that there were only 21 public defenders in the entire country, most of them young and inexperienced.
Since Liberia uses an adversarial criminal system – where a case is submitted to a jury by a prosecutor against a defence – a robust and effective defence is essential to ensure due procedure.
Building effective defence attorneys will assist the Liberian justice system in avoiding mistakes, such as lengthy detentions without trial, or wrongful convictions and overly harsh sentences.
A well-trained criminal defence, moreover, is not only critical to ensure due process, but also key in building the trust of the public in the country’s justice system.
Henry Karmo [email protected]