Monrovia – Overcrowding of prisons has always been a major problem affecting Liberia’s Criminal Justice System. But with danger of COVID-19 lurking, and more people still being sent to prisons by the courts and the police, there are growing concerns over what will happen should cases of the disease begin to spread through the prison system.
Suspects and perpetrators of crimes across the country are being sent to prisons and / or detained in police cells that are already overcrowded, sparking fears that some new inmates who may be already infected with COVID-19 might spread the virus in these facilities.
As of July 23, Liberia had reported a total of 1135 confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide, as well as 71 deaths and 621 recoveries from the disease.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the rate of infection of diseases in such confined populations – such as those found in Liberia’s prison systems – is higher than among the general population. Additionally, the WHO also states that people who abuse drugs and alcohol, and those with other pre-existing diseases such as HIV, hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB) may be at high risk of becoming seriously ill should they become infected with COVID-19.
In a May 13th statement, the WHO urged governments to consider decongesting prisons to avert possible outbreaks among prison populations.
“In the light of overcrowding in many places of detention, which undermines hygiene, health, safety and human dignity, a health response to COVID-19 in closed settings alone is insufficient. Overcrowding constitutes an insurmountable obstacle for preventing, preparing for or responding to COVID-19,” the WHO statement reads.
“We urge political leaders to consider limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, to a measure of last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures. These efforts should encompass release mechanisms for people at particular risk of COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety, such as those sentenced for minor, non-violent offences, with specific consideration given to women and children.”
In Liberia, the Monrovia Central Prison was built in the 1950s. Although it was originally designed to hold less than 200 persons, it now has a population of more than 1,000 inmates. Cells intended for four or five inmates sometimes hold up to 10 persons at a time, without enough beds.
At police detention or ‘jail’ facilities across the country, detained persons face similar crowded conditions – as they wait for their cases to be heard by the courts. As a result, there are similar fears that police detention facilities or cells may also be high risk areas for spreading the virus, because accused persons are kept there without regard for physical distancing protocol. Hygiene is poor, and detainees often do not have access to bathrooms or other sanitation facilities, and it is difficult to enforce the health protocols.
At present, police stations also do not have a reserved cell as a precautionary detention facility – where new detainees could be kept while tested for COVID-19, to ensure they are not carrying the virus – before they are placed in the main cell.
Patrick Kormazue, police commander of the Zone #9 Depot in Jacob Town, Paynesville, told FrontPageAfrica that it is also difficult to ensure compulsory wearing of nose masks by detainees, due to concerns they might use them to harm themselves.
“We urge political leaders to consider limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, to a measure of last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures. These efforts should encompass release mechanisms for people at particular risk of COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety, such as those sentenced for minor, non-violent offences, with specific consideration given to women and children.”– World Health Organization
Kormazu said before a suspect is detained, the person’s temperature is checked and they are sensitized about COVID-19.
“Detainees at the station are aware of the virus, because they are told about the virus upon their arrival at the depot, on how they should keep distance during investigation and after investigation. Those who are to be detained are also told the same,” he said, adding that detained suspects are urged to alert officers if they feel unwell.
“We keep at most four prisoners in a cell for maximum three days, and if there is a case of anyone who is to be detained, we transfer that case to another depot under our command that is not overcrowded.”
Meanwhile, at the Zone #9 depot in Monrovia’s densely populated commercial district of Red Light, suspects must wear masks even if they are being detained, says Edwin Charlie, Deputy Chief of the depot’s Criminal Service Division.
Charlie said they do not take chances, because suspects “may show signs and symptoms [of COVID-19] while in detention”.
About two miles away from the Red Light Depot is the Pipeline Depot. The commander there said detained suspects often ignore the handwashing measures because they are not interacting with people outside the cells.
Police Spokesman Moses Carter, in a cellphone interview with FPA, said decongesting police cells has been a concern of the Liberia National Police since the outbreak began.
According to him, the LNP has enhanced its community police mechanism as a result.
“Space is our problem; this is why we are trying to decongest our cells to make sure matters with less gravity are handled at the community level,” Carter said via phone.
“We have instructed all of our zones and depots to observe all of the [preventive] measures”.
He continued: “They [zones and depots officers] are told to query suspects if they are sick or not sick, because we do not want to take someone that is sick and just put them into a cell. They could infect others.”
Eddie Trawally, Assistant Justice Minister for Correction, said law enforcement officers have been trained by UNDP on how to implement the health protocols at police cells.
Trawally said that “relatives of prisoners who used to bring food or pay a visit at the 16 facilities across Liberia have been temporarily prevented from coming to them for now,” in order to limit the risk starting an outbreak in the prison.
Precautionary Observation Centers have been setup at various prisons across the country, he added.
He added that some prisoners, who committed lesser crime, have been released on community service or released in a move to decongest the prisons, because it is difficult to ensure the adherence to social distancing among inmates.
According to the Incident Management Team at National Public Health Institute of Liberia, there has been no confirmed COVID-19 case recorded in prisons or cells in the country so far.
Nevertheless, some prisoner rights advocates, who have been pushing for the release of inmates convicted for less serious crimes, insist that although there is no confirmed case of COVID-19 reported in prisons or cells, the health condition of inmates remains deplorable.
Cllr. Joyce Reeves Woods, Chair of the Liberia National Bar Association Legal Aid Committee, said they have pushed for the release of several inmates who are in poor health condition, adding that “such conditions could pose multiple health threats to inmates”.
Another group seeking the early release of convicts with less serious crimes and pre-trail detainees is the Prison Fellowship of Liberia. The organization’s Executive Director, Rev. Francis Kollie, says the lack of essential drugs at prison facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic is another cause for concern.
“Right now, there are no medical supplies. These prisons need to have essential drugs,” he said. “There could be multiple health threats if essential drugs are not provided to threat other diseases”.