Tag Archives: prison

A deafening silence

Bonthe is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It has no cars, no real roads, and just a few motorbikes. It is like stepping back in time. Crumbling colonial buildings line the town’s shore, looking across to the mainland. Behind them, are a mixture of mud houses, simple modern bungalows and metal shacks. For the most part, the only noises to break the silence are those of kids’ laughter, calls to prayer from the mosque and the ‘put-put’ of the odd boat, weighed-down with goods like rice, cement and petrol. It could be 1913 or 2013.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is the main town of Sierra Leone’s biggest island Sherbro Island. It juts-out from the coast of Sierra Leone, a five-hour drive south of Freetown. It’s home to the island’s hospital, council offices, police station and prison. That small prison was one of the first stops on our JHR reporting trip to Bonthe.

There is no electricity on Bonthe, unless you have a generator.

There is no electricity on Bonthe, unless you have a generator.

The biggest prison in the country is Freetown Central Prison (a.k.a. Pademba Road Prison). It currently holds three or four-times the number of inmates for which it was designed. Many JHR-trained journalists have reported on these conditions over the past few years. This month the government said it plans to replace the facility. Because of Pademba Road’s reputation, I was prepared for even worse when visiting a small prison on an under-developed island in the Atlantic.

When we arrived outside Bonthe Prison, the staff knew nothing of our visit. It took a few phone calls back to Freetown to confirm that a white man did indeed submit a visitor request the week before. We were in.

The main entrance to Bonthe Prison.

The main entrance to Bonthe Prison.

The cramped reception office had two prison-bar gates on either side – the only barrier between prisoners and freedom. A blackboard inside the office categorized the prisoners. Long-Term: 7, Short-Term: 8, Remand: 2, Trial: 0. Total: 17.

The courtyard in Bonthe Prison.

The courtyard in Bonthe Prison.

The dusty courtyard inside was a little smaller than a tennis court. A toilet block beside the offices, and cells on the three other sides. Two or three male prisoners sat about in the shade. They seemed almost uninterested by our visit.

This prisoner is facing a charge of Wounding with Intent.

This prisoner is facing a charge of Wounding with Intent.

We spoke to the Discipline Officer. He told us there were 23 inmates. He was quickly corrected by the Reception Officer who said there were indeed 17 inmates:  Long-Term: 8, Short-Term: 8, Remand: 0, Trial: 1. Ultimately there was no practical way to find out which numbers were real.

A prison cell in Bonthe Prison.

A cell in Bonthe Prison.

Of the seven cells, four were in use. Four or five men to a cell. The ones we saw measured around four-by-three metres, and had two or three single beds each. The officers told us that men are allowed out of their cells from 6:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m. They are all required to preform “hard labour” in local paddy fields. Not an easy life, but nothing compared to conditions in Pademba Road. And I’ll be honest, while I was inside, I sized-up how easy it appeared be to escape over the low roof.

Bonthe Prison toilet facilities

Bonthe Prison toilet facilities

We made the five second walk back outside. Our story wasn’t what we had planned it to be (a better one later developed). As we walked away, JHR’s Bonthe-based trainer Samba Koroma pointed out a yellow building beside the prison. He told me that it was the original site of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL). (The permanent SCSL compound is now in Freetown.) The SCSL was set up to prosecute for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the latter half of the 1991-2002 Civil War.

The former Special Court building in Bonthe.

The former Special Court building in Bonthe.

The courtroom section of the SCSL in Bonthe is open on two sides. Unusually for government buildings in Sierra Leone, the walls seem barely scuffed, but the SCSL logo behind the bench is beginning to peel away from the wall. The wooden dock stands to the right of the bench. In March, 2003, rebel leaders like Foday Sankoh were indicted on this stand and kept in the prison next door. That month, the court also issued an indictment for then Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Inside the SCSL courtroom in Bonthe.

Inside the SCSL courtroom in Bonthe.

Sankoh died from a stroke later that year. Taylor is currently being held in The Hague, appealing his 50-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The silence inside the SCSL courtroom seemed to ring inside my ears. I didn’t feel like hanging around, so I took a picture and quickly walked outside.

I squinted in the sunlight and saw my colleagues chatting to each other in the distance. It was so quiet I could hear what they were talking about. That very different, timeless silence again. In Bonthe, it can be any year you want it to be, but it’s a safe bet that no one’s wishing for 2003.

Justice Adjourned

As the first-ever judiciary strike in Malawi enters its fourth week, the doors to over 200 courts remain closed and justice has generally disappeared from the docket.

The industrial action began Jan. 9 when judiciary staff themselves became claimants, calling for the realization of the higher rate of pay and better working conditions promised by parliament in 2006.

The breach – K1.2 billion from July 2006 when parliament approved the salary increases to December 2011 according to a judiciary salary analysis document from the treasury – is being criticized as a violation of labour rights.

The case has an important caveat – each day that the judiciary strike for labour rights continues the rights of hundreds of detainees and prisoners to access the courts in furtherance of civil or criminal justice, to an effective remedy and to economic activity are also being ignored.

National Police Public Relations Officer Assistant Commissioner of Police Davie Chingwalu described the effects of the labour dispute as simply “uncontrollable.”

“As police the courts are our main disposal of suspects,” said Chingwalu.  “At the moment with the judiciary strike our hands are tied and the national picture as regards to handling of suspects is very difficult. We are forced to send those suspects with bigger offenses to prison although we are aware that there is congestion. What else can we do?”

Blantyre Police Station Assistant Public Relations Officer Sgt. Lameck Thembachako echoed Chingwalu’s concern, saying that in the commercial city-centre overcrowding has “reached the climax.”

According to Thembachako, Blantyre police cells are already accommodating more than 25 detainees per cell instead of the recommended maximum of 14 – and the number is increasing daily.

In an attempt to cope he said the Malawi Police Service (MPS) has been transferring detainees from overcrowded Blantyre cells to substations at Soche, Milare, Ndirande, Chilomoni and Chilobwe.

Now that even the substation cells are full, he said the MPS is planning to create “other buildings,” specifying an unused warehouse on the parent station grounds.

“The cells are now full.  They are not comfortable, they are under panic, even ventilation is not that good,” Thembachako said, adding that he expects overcrowding will have negative long-term effects on the health of detainees.

“If police have to keep you for more than two months or four months without facing justice, anything can happen to your health,” he said.  “Just sitting in a small room without getting sunshine or without proper ventilation – I think that by the end of the strike you will find two or three suspects suffering with TB or other diseases.”

At Zomba, Chichiri and Chikwawa prisons in the southern region they are also experiencing a serious shortage of space and other resources.

An inmate at Zomba Maximum Security Prison who asked to remain anonymous said, “the problem is that police have started bringing people here on remand almost every day.  People are staying here in prison on remand with small cases that the police could easily give bail for, but they are just keeping them here, and because of that nobody is going out unless their sentence expires.”

According to the inmate the overcrowding has resulted in food rations being cut in half, with prisoners receiving only one meal per day and portion sizes being reduced to an estimated 9 grams of nsima and one small cup of beans.

The inmate also said the number of inmates has increased during the judiciary strike from 1,791 on December 18, 2011 to 2,132 on February 2, 2012.

He said this means that 249 new remandees have been brought to the prison since the strike began on January 9.

With judiciary staff showing no signs of returning to work without a settlement, the onus is on the executive to negotiate a plan of repayment and answer the appeals of the hundreds of detainees and prisoners who are suffering silently as a result of the arrears.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

With files from Malawi News’ Archibald Kasakura.

Maintaining Community in Women’s Prison

I visited Freetown’s prison for women with Martha Kargbo, jhr’s first BBC World Service Trust Fellow in Sierra Leone. She is producing a feature on how women behind bars maintain contact with their families and communities. What we found is that they often have very little contact with the outside world. Phone calls are difficult and visits with family – including children – are extremely limited. Aside from the problems making contact, there is also a stigma against women who are convicted of crimes and can be stigmatised by their communities even after they are released.

To cope with this isolation from society, we saw that these women formed their own communities, much like a large extended family. Some are in for a few months if they are convicted of marijuana possession, some for years, and one or two on life sentences. They work together sowing clothes and making beaded purses.

It is a right for women with newborns to be able to look after their babies, even if they are in prison. So when there is a baby in the prison, we were told that it is often not only cared for by the biological mother, but by all of them.

The women’s prison in Freetown is not a large facility. It is housed in the former UN Special Courts for war crimes in Sierra Leone. It is not large – there were only 24 women incarcerated at the time of our visit.

When women are released from prison, they face unique challenges reintegrating into society.  They often do not have as many job opportunities as men, and the stigma against female convicts can remain in their communities. There are few government programs available to provide assistance, and correctional services say the look to international organizations for support. Some women who have been released meet every week at a local NGO called Advocaid, and have formed something of a support network. There they discuss legal issues, as well as those affecting their careers and personal lives.

Much like in the prison itself, the support group provided acted not only as a network for navigating legal issues after these women were released, but as a community for those who had lost much of theirs during incarceration.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Jamestown Prison in Accra housed remand prisoners until it was shut down in 2008

Kojo Penim Ackah wants some changes made to the Ghanaian justice system.

On Dec. 31, 1995 his mother was found dead at their home in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Ackah was charged with her murder and remanded into custody.

Ackah became one of the thousands of Ghanaians held in prison without a trial. Of the 13, 573 prisoners currently in the system, just over 3,000 are being held on remand, according to Courage Atchem, public relations officer at Ghana Prisons Service. This means nearly a quarter of inmates in Ghanaian prisons haven’t been convicted of a crime. It’s a blatant violation of their constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.

Last year, the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice found that most remand prisoners in Ghana serve between three to 17 years while waiting for a trial. Most remanded prisoners in Canada spend less than a week on remand, according to Statistics Canada.

Life in jail on remand in Ghana is no better than that of the convicted criminal. Remand prisoners eat the same food as the other inmates and in the same quantities, which amounts to about 45 cents.

What’s more, the food is often too terrible to eat, according to Ackah.

“It was toxic,” he says. “I personally witnessed someone drink the soup in the prison and vomit from the mouth and the nose. I don’t know if it was malaria or what. Where I slept, he vomited on top of me and I was shocked.”

The remand problem is mainly caused by the lack of lawyers to represent people in bail hearings, according to A.Y. Sieni, director of the National Legal Aid Scheme. Judges are more likely to grant bail when the accused has a lawyer to represent them.

To make matters worse, not enough lawyers volunteer for legal aid service because government does not provide them with adequate compensation, says Sieni.

The system loses track of how long prisoners are held in custody due to an inefficient tracking system. And even though remand warrants are by law to be renewed every 14 days, Sieni says they are often lost or forgotten.

It was disorganization that lengthened Ackah’s stay in prison. His court date was getting close by the end of 2000, but then the police officer handling his file was transferred and no one could find Ackah’s docket, condemning him to another eight years in prison.

Ackah spent four years in Jamestown Prison, a former slave fort in Accra that housed remand prisoners until 2008 when they were transferred north to Nsawam Prison. Nsawam was built to hold 850 prisoners. It’s currently home to 3,394 inmates, including 1,250 remand prisoners, who occupy a single block within the prison, isolated from the convicts for their own safety. Ackah says the convict blocks house about 20 inmates per cell, while the remand block houses up to 65 inmates in a single cell.

George Safo Sarpong is a recently-released exconvict who served three years for beating his wife. He supported Ackah’s account of life in remand detention.

“The remand block is very congested,” he says. “If you’re a convict, you thank God, because you have the freedom to move. You can go and play ball, even go to church. But in remand you don’t have that ability. You’re always locked up.”

Ackah finally had his day in court in 2008. A judge found him innocent and he now lives unemployed, relying on the help of his brother.

He wants Ghana’s justice system reformed so no one else has to suffer for a crime they didn’t commit.

“I never even married,” he says. “I don’t have anything. I have to start from scratch again. Those are the difficulties. It’s not good for your freedom to be taken from you for even a minute. It’s very, very bad.”