Women’s prisons in Sierra Leone are so overcrowded, inmates are sharing beds and offices are being converted into makeshift cells, a new report has revealed.Despite having a population of 7.6 million, there are only two womens-only prisons in a country where roughly 3 percent of the prison population are women. The only separate maximum security prison for women is the Female Correctional Centre in the capital, Freetown, which is designed to hold 18 inmates, but in December last year contained 64.
AdvocAid – an NGO that supports women and girls caught up in Sierra Leone’s legal system – and the Cyrus R. Vance Centre for International Justice interviewed 80 women prisoners across the country between November and December, 2019. They found that 62 percent of those being held were pre-trial detainees – meaning they hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. One woman had been held for seven years without being convicted of her alleged crime.Isabella Cordua, a researcher at the Vance Centre and the study’s author, told VICE News that the 62 percent statistic was “staggering” – adding that pre-trial detention should only be used as a last resort. Authorities claim that the excessive use of pre-trial detention is due to court backlogs and long, complex trials. The women are also subjected to strict bail conditions.
AdvocAid has been calling on the government to release vulnerable, low-risk pre-trial detainees during the COVID-19 pandemic as cases of the virus in Sierra Leone continue to rise. Seventy people have died so far across the country. There are fears this number will rise sharply due to Sierra Leone’s insufficient healthcare system and a lack of access to sanitation and running water in impoverished communities, in a country where more than half live below the national poverty line. This could lead to a crisis in overcrowded prisons, where conditions are ripe for the virus to spread.
In May, the World Health Organisation released a joint statement with the UN, urging political leaders around the world to reduce overcrowding in prisons by using pre-trial detention as a last resort, employing non-custodial measures and releasing those convicted of minor crimes. Countries like Turkey, Poland, Indonesia and Iran followed the advice – some releasing tens of thousands of prisoners.So far, the Sierra Leone government has taken few preventative measures to stop the spread of the virus in prisons. Joseph Bangura, AdvocAid’s monitoring and evaluation officer, and an assistant researcher on the study, told VICE News that three women were given a presidential pardon as part of Independence Day celebrations in April, but nobody has been released with the specific aim of easing overcrowding in the middle of a pandemic.No cases of COVID-19 have yet been reported in the prisons, but “the risk [of catching COVID-19] is high”, Bangura explained. Social distancing in any prison is complex, but most jails in Sierra Leone don’t have access to masks or protective equipment. AdvocAid have stepped in to provide soap and other resources. At the time of the study, there was only one nurse and one doctor on call at the Freetown Female Correctional Centre.“I think COVID-19 has shown us how urgent it is to provide alternatives to incarceration, and it’s shown us some of the weaknesses of our criminal justice systems – not just in Sierra Leone, but all around the world,” Cordua said.
The report goes on to highlight how Sierra Leone’s criminal justice system is skewed against women. Jalahan Amara, the south east programme officer at AdvocAid, told VICE News that a lack of social support leads to the criminalisation of poverty.Thirty-four percent of the women interviewed were imprisoned for petty crimes, such as stealing small sums of money, often from family members. Half of the women told researchers that they were their household’s sole earner, with one inmate revealing that she is the mother of eight children. “Sometimes it was just impossible to take care of them all,” she told the researchers. “So I borrowed some money from a friend, but when I couldn't pay back, she turned me into the police. I am so worried. Who will make sure that my children go to school and are well fed?”
The report found that 72 percent of the women had been victims of domestic abuse. “So many lives are shattered by something like this,” Cordua said. A lack of trust in the police discourages many women from reporting abuse, particularly married women, who are often told to resolve the matter privately.Around 94 percent of the women in prison for violent offences against a partner testified that they had either acted in self defence or had face prolonged physical and sexual abuse prior to the incident. If a woman is found guilty of murder, a history of violence cannot be a mitigating factor to reduce her sentence, because there is an automatic death penalty for such crimes in Sierra Leone – though nobody has been executed there since 1998.
One woman at the Freetown Correctional Centre was 14 when she got pregnant by an older man. She said that her family made her marry him so she wouldn’t give birth out of marriage. But after the birth of their son, her husband was physically, emotionally and financially abusive, she testified. “Every time he was angry at me, he would rape me,” she told the researchers. “He didn't even give me money to cook and care for our kid, so I started… selling fish to support me and the boy. I reported my husband to the police, but they did nothing.”She continued: “One day, my husband ate the food I was going to sell for survival, so I asked him to pay me money. He said he would not pay me and he started beating me. I had a knife in my hand because I was cooking when he started squeezing my throat. I stabbed him on his side and he died.”Some inmates said they felt tricked by the police. Bangura explained that many were asked to sign written statements that they couldn’t read (half of the women interviewed were illiterate), while police officers have been know to ask the women – especially sex workers – for sex in exchange for their release.The report recommends the government make a number of reforms, such as introducing community-based, non-custodial sentences, as well as decriminalising petty crimes. This would ease pressure on prisons and provide better opportunities for rehabilitation. Once implemented, it would also be more cost-effective for the state. Most importantly, it says, there needs to be a commitment to make the criminal justice system fairer for women.
“I think, in general, a system that is designed and run by men will probably not have women at the heart of their thinking,” Cordua told VICE News.Researchers say the report has been welcomed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with the deputy minister, Mr. Lahai Lawrence Leema, acknowledging that the report highlighted the shortcomings of the criminal justice system. “He said that this report would provide essential data that would be really helpful to the ministry as it develops further reforms,” Cordua explained. Bangura is also hopeful that reforms are possible: “[This report] is a wake-up call. Now people are really thinking about women in correctional facilities.”The Sierra Leone Correctional Service – the government institution responsible for inmates in custody – did not respond to repeated requests for comment.