MONROVIA CENTRAL PRISON — In 2019 Jerry Zeah left his home in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, with hopes of greener pastures here in the nation’s capital. But his dreams were dashed soon after he arrived when Zeah’s employer accused him of robbing a liquor store on Old Road and conspiring with others to steal $LD1.5 million. Police charged and arrested Zeah. Because he couldn’t pay a bond he was sent to Monrovia Central Prison, commonly known as “South Beach”.
By: Dennise Nimpson with New Narratives
Four years later Zeah is still here. FPA/NN met Zeah during a recent to the prison granted on the condition that we not make recordings of any kind. The crime for which he has been charged carries a five-year sentence. In a year Zeah will exceed that time in jail despite never having been tried. The 27-year-old says he has lost part of his young life in misery, confined to a cell, for a crime for which he has never been found guilty. Zeah says he is innocent but sees no sign of justice being done any time soon.
“They did not give me time to go to court,” says Zeah. “If I had gone to court, my fate would have been decided, but right now, I don’t know where I am.”
Zeah is one of 2167 people across Liberia whose lives have been upended by being been jailed without a trial, according to the World Pre-trial/Remain Imprisonment, a global group monitoring prison numbers. Just 862 of Liberia’s prisoners have actually been convicted of a crime. Nearly 70 per cent of Liberia’s detainees have never been tried. That number reaches 80 per cent here in South Beach prison. Liberia is amongst countries with a high rate of pretrial detainees, the body said.
FPA/NN was given rare press access to the jail. Wearing an outfit that looked and smelled like it had been worn for many months, Zeah looked dejected, hopeless, and like a man who had lost everything. Thin and looking more like a man in his 50s than his 20s, he claimed that the food in the prison is tasteless and unhealthy.
“For you to eat it has to be 6 pm, the food we are eating here you can’t give it to your dog,” says Zeah.
The overcrowding of South Beach Jail has been well documented. The latest US Department of State County Report on Human Rights in Liberia called conditions “harsh” and blamed that in part on “gross overcrowding” in a prison holding 1426 inmates in a facility built for 374. It was evident in NN/FPA’s visit. Eight men – all pretrial detainees – shared a small cell. Convicted felons are housed on the same floor as pretrial detainees, though not the same cells. They had to take turns sleeping and had no access to running water. Inmates could be seen hanging on the windows of their cells, with looks of disappointment and rejection, begging for handouts from visitors. They received one meal a day.
A General Audit Commission report on the prisons in 2021 echoed the State Department findings. It also said there was inadequate pest control and prisoners with communicable diseases were often kept with healthy prisoners. Nearly 600 children were among the detainees. Prolonged detentions violate Liberia’s Constitution and international laws, which call for a speedy and impartial trial of an accused. According to the U.S. 2022 Human Rights Report, Zeah is one of many who have waited in detention for lengths of time approaching or exceeding the sentence they would receive if convicted.
The report attributed the problem to a range of issues including the use of detention as a punitive measure, failure to issue indictments in a timely manner, the lack of a functioning bail system, poor court recordkeeping, the failure of judges to assign court dates, ineffective assistance of defense counsel, and a lack of resources for public defenders.
“The defendants should have their hearing as soon as possible,” says Cllr. Finley Karnga, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented many people detained for long periods. “Pretrial detention is an unwarranted penalty, especially when your crime is bailable.”
Zeah’s crime is bailable, but he claims he has no money to pay and can’t afford a lawyer. He has never been given a court date. Zeah also claims he spent one week in a local police cell in Paynesville before being charged, an action that also violates his constitutional right to be charged and forwarded to court within 48 hours of his arrest.
“My life is shattered,” says Zeah. “I feel bad being here because I did not do what I am accused of. They brought me here, no one to run after the court because of the lack of money.”
There are ways to ensure the release of pre-trial detainees – such as filing a petition – according to Karnga but most detainees and their families are given no information about this, and others may be too poor to pay fees.
The injustice of being jailed for years without being convicted of any crime is just one source of anger for pretrial detainees. Their suffering is made all the worse by the jails’ overcrowded and sometimes dangerous conditions.
Rodney Sieh, Managing Editor of Frontpage Africa, had a firsthand experience when he was jailed in 2013 for failing to pay a $1.5m libel fine, which was later dismissed.
“The condition was very bad and people were crying for lack of simple basic hygiene stuff,” Sieh says. “They have sometimes six to seven people in one room, the toilet was deplorable, and I got sick. A lot of time people forget that prisoners are human beings too and if you do not improve the facilities, they will fall sick.”
Sieh’s information is that things are only getting worse since he was there. “People were there because they have no justice and people have been there for years in prison without trial. The prisons are overcrowded, and it has been that way for some time now and it seems the government is doing nothing to fix it.”
Rev. S. Sainleseh Kwaidah, Director of the Prisons, says the poor condition of the prisons is no secret. He blames a dramatic cut in funding under the Weah administration.
Indeed the GAC audit report for the years 2013 to 2020 found a drop in funding from $US2 million in the last year of the Sirleaf government to just over $US300,000 in 2020. At the same time prisoner numbers have grown from 2200 to 2700. The GAC found instances of funding for prisoners being diverted to elections. Payments for prisoner support were also going in direct payments to individual employees.
“Prison conditions across the country are challenging,” says Kwaidah. “That’s no hidden agenda. This is something that is well known to all rule of law actors including national and international partners.”
He echoed GAC call for adequate funding to be provided. “These are human beings and they are existing in conditions that are not suitable for humans.”
“The condition in those prisons do not meet the international standard required,” says Stephen Rodriques, the immediate past Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in an interview with FPA/NN. The UNDP has been working with the government to alleviate the problem.
In 2022 with UNICEF support, and in coordination with the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, the Ministry of Justice worked to remove children from the criminal justice system. By last September 154 children were removed from detention and another 396 cases were mediated under a juvenile diversion program. In December the Supreme Court ordered Monrovia Central Prison to release 300 inmates in December who were awaiting trial and were charged with minor offenses and had already served one month or more in detention.
Rodrigues applauded that move.“A drop of just about 300 is important and that has given us the momentum to continue to advocate for the release of prisoners.”
As part of the effort of continued support, the former UNDP Resident Representative said the government also initiated programs that have released more inmates. “We are working with the government and Ministry of Justice to have this program we called the Sitting Magistrate program where we have magistrate to go at the prison to have a trial, and in December we saw the effectiveness of the program that 73 inmates were released,” Rodrigues says. “The UNDP supported the Ministry of Justice to put in place what we called the Alternative Dispute Resolution Policy. We need to expedite the process by turning that policy into law.”
Zeah, charged with armed robbery, was not among those eligible for release. Hoping to see his family and go to school he is appealing to the government to expedite his trial and end what he says is torture.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its “Investigative Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.