Of the approximately 1,094 inmates at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP), about 836 of them account for 76 percent of the number of people who have been awaiting trial for at least a year, making it a higher percentage than the jail’s overall population, according to the Bureau of Correction and Rehabilitation at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).
In some extreme cases, some of the inmates have been held without trial for more than four years, Varney G. Lake, prison superintendent, said on Thursday, April 12, during an acquaintance visit by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Cllr. Frank Musa Dean.
Lake informed Cllr. Dean that the remaining 258 of the prison’s population are serving post-conviction sentences, and the rest are still waiting for trial or to be sentenced.
Most of the inmates are awaiting trial for multiple charges of violent crimes such as murder, rape, assault or armed robbery, according to Lake.
“At least 375 of the 1,094 are those charged with only rape,” the MCP Superintendent stated.
He said the prison was built to hold a little over 300 inmates, with the current population now two times the number of convicts held at the facility.
Most of the 22 female inmates interviewed by Minister Dean explained that nearly half of them have been held not because they have been deemed too dangerous for release, but simply because they couldn’t post bonds.
After some pretrial inmates told Minister Dean that they could not afford even a small bond, he immediately mandated some of his female lawyers to begin arranging for their release.
“Prison is not a place to destroy people, but where they can be rehabilitated,” Minister Dean declared. “And so, we are going to work along with relevant justice actors, to empower them with skills that can make them useful members of their communities upon release.”
Dean told journalists that a complicated host of factors contribute to trial delays and that his office would shortly launch a series of initiatives to study the problem and take remedial action based on best practices.
He agreed that complex criminal cases may legitimately take a lot of time—sometimes years—to adjudicate.
Despite the numerous challenges, Assistant Minister for Rehabilitation, Eddie S. Tarawali, said they were providing educational opportunities for prisoners to take responsibility for developing their vocational skills and social completeness in order for them to become contributing, productive members of the prison community and also of their communities upon their release.
“If the needed funding is available, we are committed to providing technical and workplace skills training for prisoners to enhance their ability to acquire and maintain jobs upon release,” Minister Tarawali said.
But, according to Tarawali, maintaining the program would entail support by securing a contract to sew all public school uniforms, which would provide more funding for the upkeep of the training.
But poverty is not the only cause of prolonged pretrial detentions. The Daily Observer’s investigation established that dozens of attorneys, court administrators, and inmates interviewed for this story, as well as a highly critical report from the Bureau of Correction and Rehabilitation, paint a gloomy picture of a court system plagued by unnecessary delays.
“Court systems around the country are crippled by overwhelming public defenders and over-scheduled courtrooms, and the lack of a state of the art crime lab, which can take the prosecution up to a year to turn around basic DNA samples, especially during a rape trial,” a lawyer indicated.
Nevertheless, the consequences for defendants of such lengthy trial delays are severe and raise troubling questions about the unequal application of justice in the country.
Extended trial delays deprive defendants of their liberty for months or years as they await trial, causing them to lose jobs, incur debt, fall behind on schooling, and endure separation from loved ones, a defense lawyer noted.