Inmates demand new prison laws in Liberia

Calls for reform of Liberia’s notorious prison system have intensified after more than 200 inmates protested at a facility in northern Nimba county, citing the government’s failure to provide adequate food and medication. Long-standing complaints about the country’s prisons include severe overcrowding, lack of access to medical facilities, sanitary items, and uniforms.

The Rev Sainleseh Kwaidah, Liberia’s national director of prisons, attributed shortages to factors such as overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure, and challenges in budget allocation. Only six of the 16 prisons had clinical facilities, leading to a rotating medical staff and services in the remaining 10. Budget constraints were evident in a 2021 report showing a decline in government funding from $1.8m in 2013 to $311,208 in 2020.

In December 2022, Monrovia central prison, the largest in the country, refused new inmates due to overcrowding. A US State Department human rights report revealed the prison, built for 374 inmates, held 1,426 in 2022, resulting in prisoners sleeping in shifts at times. The majority of inmates are pre-trial detainees, comprising 73% of the nationwide prison population of 3,256, according to a UN report.

To address food shortages, prisons rely on donations from private organizations, and the Liberian Bar Association (LBA) is implementing legal aid clinics for pre-trial detainees. Jamal C Detho, a law professor and LBA vice-president, called for more plea bargaining, alternative dispute resolution for lesser offenses, and capacity building for probation officers.

Liberia’s president-elect, Joseph Boakai, will be inaugurated in the new year. The government had pledged to build a new prison last year, but construction has not commenced. While some prisons were renovated, projects supporting inmates’ food production were initiated. A strategic plan for prison reform extends to 2027, and Kwaidah emphasizes the need for collective efforts to implement the plan.

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