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22nd July 2018

Sierra Leone: Prison Houses 90 Mothers and Children, 1 Doctor for 1000 Inmates!

By Sabrina & Maeve (10/04/18)

Sierra Leone's maximum security prison for women houses 90 women and their children, with only one doctor serving over 1000 prisoners!


The Freetown Female Correctional Centre, located in the centre of Sierra Leone's capital, is the former detention facility of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where men accused of war crimes during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war were detained. (Photo: Female prisoners and children look on hopelessly. New President Maada Bio needs to sort out this problem promptly).

The number of female prisoners in Sierra Leone has doubled in the last three years. There are only two separate detention facilities for female prisoners in the country. The largest separate detention facility is the Freetown Female Correctional Centre which holds around 90 female prisoners and their children.

Women on death row or those who are serving life imprisonment sentences are also held at the facility. Sierra Leone still retains the death penalty for murder, treason and armed robbery.

However, the majority of female prisoners are arrested for minor, petty offences such as theft, loitering, disorderly behaviour or debt. These laws are vague, poorly defined and disproportionately affect the poor. Many women spend excessive time in prison waiting for their trial to be heard or serving sentences simply because they cannot afford to pay the alternative fine.

AdvocAid Sierra Leone is the only holistic organisation working to provide access to justice, education and empowerment for women and girls in conflict with the law in Sierra Leone. AdvocAid has freed four women on death row through appeals or pardons and provided free legal advice to over 4,000 women since 2006.

Editor's Note: Names have been Changed to Protect the Women’s Identities

Aminata was 17 years old when she was arrested for killing her abusive ex-boyfriend eight years ago. The trial judge, when advising the jury on the law, stated that using a knife in self-defence when being beaten by a rubber pipe was a disproportionate use of force. Aminata was sentenced to death for murder in November 2010 and feared each day she would be executed. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the government on Independence Day in April 2011.

AdvocAid filed an appeal for Aminatta’s release in 2010. Her case was finally heard in the Court of Appeal in May 2014 and the case closed for judgment in February 2015, but Aminata is still waiting for the appeal judgment over three years later.

AdvocAid runs literacy classes in the prison with an educational charity, EducAid, and the support of the Sierra Leone Correctional Service. One of the women who attends the classes, Serah, said: "I choose to learn because in society, if you cannot read or write, you are left out, and I know that once I am released I will feel more part of society. I will also be able to help my child to read. When you sit here in the lesson, you can forget what you are in here for, and just devote time to learning. I want to encourage and inspire other women to take up the classes and show that it is not too late to learn."

Sierra Leone passed a progressive Legal Aid Act in 2012. However, funding for legal empowerment organisations remains a challenge. In 2015, 193 countries agreed to make 'access to justice for all' one of the goals for achieving sustainable development by 2030. Insufficient funds have been pledged for access to justice.

Freetown is one of the wettest capitals in the world, with the rainy season raging from May to October. This poses various challenges for the prison, including making the open space outside the cells unusable for much of the time, exacerbating illnesses and creating difficulties to wash and dry clothes and sheets.

During the rainy season, women are prone to more illnesses. The prison has few nurses and just one doctor for both the more than thousand male and female prisoners. Medical supplies and healthcare items, such as sanitary towels, are in short supply.

Many women are detained with their children in prison. There is no official policy but generally, children under two years old are kept with their mothers in prison. After that, the child may be given to a family member or orphanage.

Josephine sells palm oil for a living, to provide for herself and her three children. She buys the palm oil on credit, paying back her suppliers once she sells enough to her customers. One day, some customers ran off with her oil before paying, placing her in significant debt with her suppliers. Four of Josephine's suppliers took her to court separately on the charge of obtaining goods by false pretences. AdvocAid's lawyer advocated for all four counts to be counted as one offence, however, this was denied. Josephine is now serving a two-year sentence in the correctional centre. Josephine has not seen or heard from her children since the beginning of the sentence and is worried that they may have stopped going to school.

Sex workers are often arrested by the police for ill-defined crimes such as 'loitering' or 'frequenting'. The police routinely use these old-fashioned laws to arrest sex workers simply for being outside at night. Arresting sex workers for these minor offences deters them from reporting serious crimes, such as violence, rape, and theft to the police. One woman working in Lumley recalls being held at knifepoint by a client: "They [clients] have sex with us and then beat us. When we argue, they take out a knife and say if you talk they will stab you." Another woman said: "If you don’t have sex with them [the police], they will put you in a cell."

Christiana, Zainab and Favour are commercial sex workers. They were leaving the local nightclub in Freetown at around midnight one evening, when the police arrested them on charges of loitering. They were held by the police for three days and were asked to pay for bail, even though bail is free in Sierra Leone. Because they didn’t have any money, the matter was charged to court. The women had the choice of paying a fine of Le 1,500,000 ($200) each or spending nine months in the correctional centre. The parents of these women gathered enough money to pay the fines, but the women chose instead to serve the time in prison, as they knew that to accept their parents' offer would cripple them financially and could result in their siblings being taken out of school, or not being able to pay medical bills.

Mariatu is asking for the government to speed up delays in receiving indictments. After a case is committed to the High Court, women in pre-trial detention can wait months to over a year for their indictment, and then for the trial to begin. Most women are the main breadwinners and caregivers and excessive time in pre-trial detention has a huge impact on their families.

Being separated from their children is very traumatic for women in prison. Prison rules do not allow young children to visit the prison and some women are detained far from their families. Paralegals and social workers can act as a lifeline for prisoners and help them to check on their families.

Courtesy: By Sabrina Mahtani and Maeve O’Gorman - (Boaz Reisel/AdvocAid) 25/03/18


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