jhr fellow helps government improve conditions of state prisons in Sierra Leone

As a part of jhr’s Fellowship program, jhr trained journalist Mohamed Massaquoi investigated the conditions of the Kenema state prison in Sierra Leone.

He discovered that the prison had no medical facilities and inmates were afflicted with multiple diseases, including chicken pox, scabies, piles and others. Inmates were sleeping on the bare floor, had insufficient food and were using a single bucket between 4-5 people as a toilet. Overcrowding meant there were 150 people in a space designed for 70.

Prison commanders made multiple attempts to contact the local government minister to help improve conditions but all attempts were unsuccessful.

Massaquoi published the article in the Concord Times, a Sierra Leonean newspaper. Soon after, local government Minister Hon. Dauda Kamara organized a meeting, urging prison officers to improve the condition of state prisons across the country. Shortly afterwards a truckload of food and non-food items, including medication, were sent to Kenema. The female prisoners in Kenema were also supplied with skills training in tailoring, soap making and other activities. Read the full original article below

Kenema State Prison in Bad Shape

By Mohamed Massaquoi

Kenema Law Courts, Kenema District, Sierra Leone


Lahai Konima’s body is covered with small itchy blisters and his eyes are red. He says he has a skin disease, which the prison officer says is chicken pox, but he has not been to see a doctor.


He shares a small cell in the Kenema prison with four other men. There are no beds and no mattresses; the men sleep on the bare floor. A single bucket serves as their toilet. Konima, who comes from Bendu Memeima in the Lower Bambara chiefdom in Kenema District, has been in the prison for five months. He is on trial for the rape of an underage girl. She later died, and he was then also charged with murder.


Chicken pox is not the only illness at the prison. Inmates are also being afflicted by scabies, piles, skin and other communicable diseases, the Kenema District Human Rights Committee has found.


The committee vice chairman Abdul Kamara said though prisons officers are trained to protect the rights of those in custody, there are many human rights violations at the prison as the living condition of inmates continues to worsen. The committee visited the prison on December 19, 2008.


“Toilet, water and other facilities are completely lacking at the detention centre. At the time of visit, there were 151 detainees in a prison structure meant for 70 inmates, which shows that the detention centre is overcrowded,” he said. Of the 151, 28 are serving long-term sentences, 51 are serving terms of less than five years, 45 are currently on trial at the High Court, and 35 are waiting for their trials to start.


Kamara said poor sanitation, lack of medical facilities, and insufficient food are among the major problems in the prison. Inmates must use buckets as toilets and they only have one meal per day, which worsens their health conditions. When inmates do get sick, there are no medical facilities at the prison, and they must be taken to the government hospital. Doctors say there is no funding to treat them, Kamara said. He also explained that it is often difficult for inmates to communicate with their relatives and lawyers as the relationship between the officers and the prisoners is not cordial, and the prisoners are not given access to phones.


Mohamed Mansaray was arrested in Kono and taken to the Kenema state prison over one year ago. As of Kamara’s visit to the prison, his family members could still not get information about his detention.  Senior State Counsel East Timothy Sowa has visited the Kenema prison on several occasions and says that violations of human rights are on the increase.


One of the problems Sowa observed was that the Kenema prison is overcrowded and lacks modern facilities. He said insufficient food, poor medical facility and the spread of communicable diseases are also commonplace.  He also said that prison officers sometimes inflict corporal punishment on prisoners by forcing them to do domestic and other work outside the prison.


Sowa explained that it is the responsibility of the judiciary to monitor the activities of the prison after the conclusion of any criminal session.  The director of prisons or his regional representative is summoned to the high court to give a detailed report about the prisons, including the number of prisoners in custody, the general condition of the prisons, and issues relating to food, health and recreational and medical facilities. The judge or state counsel then visits the prison to see for him or herself.


John Sevallie, the Regional Coordinator East for the Lawyers’ Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA), has been following up development at the police cells and maximum prison and is not happy with the way some police and prison officers are infringing on the rights of suspects and accused persons.


People being held in prisons have the right to food, shelter, medical and recreational facilities, and capacity building, he said. But there are also a lot of other human rights violations during pre-trial, trial and post-trial periods, including illegal detention by the police.  He said suspects while under investigation have the right to be questioned in a language they can understand and should have the right to a witness to corroborate the evidence available.


Sevallie said police officers often take mobile phones from prisoners, so they are not able to communicate with their lawyers or relatives.  He said the right of accused persons to understand charges preferred against them must not only be upheld but must also be provided with a copy of the judgment at the end of the trial. All of these rights are protected by the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone.


“Unfortunately Kenema district does not have any legal oversight to monitor the activities of magistrates and judges as the bench is bound to abuse the rights of accused persons,” he said. Only the Western Area has judicial oversight to ensure the rights of accused persons are respected.


Regional prisons commander east, Cecilia Kaikai agreed that there are problems in the Kenema prison, but said her department is working hard to address them.  She said the health and sanitation condition of inmates is prominent on her agenda, especially for the male prison, which is more crowded.  There are 154 prisoners in the male prison and 26 female in the female section.  She said there is need to improve on the health of prisoners as sanitation will help to prevent the spread of dangerous infectious diseases.


“Toiletries, mattresses and other materials are on their way. I brought with me drinking buckets and some dishes for the inmates,” she said, adding, “We hope to improve on other areas. We shall have a welfare officer who will be responsible for prisoners.”


Kaikai denied allegation of an outbreak of diseases but confirmed that there is poor hygiene in the prison system, which has prompted them to place the issue of sanitation at the top of their priorities. She also denied allegation that prison officers violate the rights of prisoners, stressing that their responsibility is to reform and rehabilitate them while in custody.  Kaikai however complained that her department lacks recreational facilities to upkeep inmates. “We have written a project proposal to the prison headquarters for them to provide recreational facility for the Kenema state prison.”


Attempts to contact Dauda Kamara, the minister of internal affairs, local government and rural development, for comment were unsuccessful.

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