Liberia: Calls to Decongest Prisons Over COVID-19 Raise Concerns of Rise in Crime

A prisoner hangs from the barred window of his cell in Nimba County to catch a glimpse of outside, December 2, 2008. United Nations

MONROVIA – There are calls for the release of pretrial detainees and inmates with lesser crimes across Liberia so that prisons do not become coronavirus hotspots. But some human activists warn it could spark a rise in community crime if not properly done.

Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni With New Narratives

When Liberia recorded its fiftieth COVID-19 case in mid-April, several civil society organizations began calling on President George Weah to pardon some inmates, while urging the Judiciary to fast-track trials at lower courts.

Liberia’s coronavirus numbers have surged to 652 cases and 34 deaths as of June 23, and they continue to rise. There are concerns the virus will spread like wildfire in overcrowded prisons, infamous for poor sanitary conditions.

“Decongestion of the prison facilities will help in minimizing the risks of transmission, especially at this time that requires [physical] distancing to prevent the rapid spread of the disease,” says Joyce Pajibo, executive director of Serving Humanity for Empowerment and Development (SHED), a group that runs a legal clinic for inmates.

“Officers assigned to the prison facilities are on shift and usually visit their families back home before returning to the various facilities. So, the likelihood for the officers themselves to transmit the virus in the prison is also possible.”

Although there have been no COVID-19 cases recorded in any prison, the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) has temporarily suspended visits to all 16 prison facilities across the country to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Only inmates’ attorneys are permitted inside after passing mandatory screening—hand-washing, temperature check and protective face mask.

While the BCR is keen on preventing any case of the virus, it emphasizes that prisoners’ rights should be respected. “We want to ensure that, while we are fighting this thing [COVID-19], they still have their legal rights to talk to their attorneys and go to court,” says Edwin McGill, BCR director of prisons.

The BCR learned from its experience with the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic when Liberia’s prison system did not record any case, points out McGill.

“We believe that these measures that we put in place are helping a lot, and we hope that we can do more to prevent any incident of the COVID-19 outbreak,” he says of the implementation of the preventive measures in the prisons.

Yet, screening may not be enough to prevent a virus that is easier to transmit than Ebola given the conditions in Liberia’s prisons. 

Unsafe Conditions

Inside the Monrovia Central Prison: Inmates struggle for space on a hot day in Monrovia, November 2018. UNDP

Prisons across the country are persistently overcrowded, making physical distancing in the facilities virtually impossible.

The Monrovia Central Prison (MCP), for example, was built in the 1950s for less than 200 persons; now it has a population of 1,120. Cells intended for four or five inmates sometimes hold 10 persons, without enough beds. Some inmates improvise by stitching together empty rice bags into makeshift hammocks that are then tied to the window bars.

Many prisons are in unsanitary conditions, according to Atty. Samwar Fallah, who provides free legal services for pre-trial detainees as part of his local human rights group’s project activities.

“These prisons are a complete recipe for breeding diseases because how do you keep more than 10 persons in a cell that is meant for only four or five people?” says Fallah. “The families of many people we represented recently to secure their release were very happy because they were worried about the condition of the prison. It is so appalling. I think we can avoid the over-crowdedness by fast-tracking cases relating to minor offenses.” 

Another attorney, who has been working to also release pre-trial detainees since the pandemic but asked for anonymity, confirms Fallah’s assertions.

“The condition of these prisons is so terrible,” he says. “We can’t have humans in those places. They have rights. All we can do now is reduce the population, and that will limit the health risks.”

If an outbreak were to develop, a prison would not be well equipped to contain it. Medical clinics at prisons are historically poorly supported. Inmates are often transferred to hospitals elsewhere when they fall sick. Since the start of coronavirus, the transport of medical supplies to these prisons has been disrupted.

“Right now, there are no medical supplies at these prisons. These prisons need to have essential drugs to treat other diseases, but many of them do not have medical supplies,” says Rev. Francis Kollie, executive director of Prison Fellowship Liberia, a non-governmental organization that provides free legal assistance to inmates.

Kollie’s organization has helped bail out over 300 prisoners since the outbreak. He is worried that there are multiple health threats to prisoners.

“It is not just COVID-19 that might affect the prisoners during this health crisis,” says Kollie. “There are other diseases like malaria, cholera and typhoid that are also a threat to inmates in these overcrowded prison cells.”

The BCR is “working with the Judiciary to decongest the population,” according to McGill, who stresses the importance of fast-tracking court proceedings during the pandemic. “The Judiciary and other partners are working along with us to make sure that those things that need to be done to reduce the population of the prisons are put in place speedily,” he says.

Liberia will not be the first country to free prisoners over the pandemic. Some African countries have already taken that step. The Democratic Republic of Congo has released over 2,000 pretrial detainees. Kenya has released 4,500 petty offenders, and Ghana 808. 

Fear of Rise in Crime

If not properly done, freeing prisoners might lead to a rise in crime during the coronavirus lockdown and even afterward, caution some human rights activists.

President George Weah on Monday extended the state of emergency for another 30 days. The curfew, which was pushed to 9 p.m. a fortnight ago, has been readjusted to 6 p.m.

Since the imposition of a state of emergency, there have been incidents of burglary, domestic violence, and aggravated assault.   

In one incident, police charged a 34-year-old man for multiple crimes, including murder, after he allegedly killed his uncle with a machete in Paynesville. Also in Paynesville, a man, 36, gouged his girlfriend in the eye, severely injuring her. The police have issued a warrant for his arrest.

In an incident in Duazhon, Margibi County, armed robbers broke through the window of a house and got away with valuables.

“We are afraid that releasing the wrong kind of inmates or pretrial detainees will cause crimes to increase in the communities, and this could become another major social problem to deal with,” says Pajibo of SHED.

Seventy-five percent of incarcerated prisoners in Liberia are pretrial detainees, according to the BCR. 

As of June 10, 2020, the BCR had recorded 2,300 prisoners in its system. This number excludes police jail cells, which are manually recorded daily.

Only pretrial detainees and inmates who committed lesser offenses should be released, warns Miatta Gray, executive director of Sister’s Hand, a human rights group rendering legal assistance for women and juvenile inmates. “In this period of crisis, you don’t want to release career criminals into the society.”

A case in Bong County gives cause for concern.

In April, a circuit court judge in the central county released eight pretrial detainees charged with rape, including Junior Flomo. Flomo, 39, was arrested in January 2019 for allegedly raping his 63-year-old grandmother, his mother, and an infant and her mother, according to court filings.

His lawyer argued that state prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence that he committed the offenses. Human rights advocates in the county are worried about Flomo’s release into the community. It would be “a blow to women’s rights,” warns Aaron Juakollie, program officer of the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND).

Human Rights campaigners, including those pushing for the release of prisoners, share the view that government and civil society must provide regular psychosocial counseling and support for prisoners prior to their release.

Released prisoners should be placed in the care of immediate relatives because the government does not have the capacity to directly prevent them from committing or recommitting crimes, says Pajibo. “In as much as we want to depopulate the prison, I don’t think we should violate the law because we will be solving one problem and also creating another problem.”

The government should collaborate with civil society organizations to engage communities to monitor the returned prisoners, says Atty. Margaret Nigba, executive director of Her Voice Liberia, a group working to protect the rights of inmates.

The government will exercise due diligence before freeing prisoners. First offenders stand a better chance, says Wesseh Wesseh, assistant minister for litigation at the Ministry of Justice. “This is why the court must exercise due diligence to release people. Because if someone is a repeat offender, then it means they should be very careful to have that person released.”

The Judiciary is reviewing cases, releasing prisoners on bail and sentencing them to community service due to coronavirus, according to attorneys working with legal clinics run by prisoners’ rights NGOs.

Going forward, public awareness will be a crucial component. 

“While we are fighting to ensure that the court system releases people,” says prison director Edwin McGill, “we’ll be taking the message out through our probation process to make sure the community people are aware of what’s happening.”

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project