Is Gov’t Ignoring Risk of Spread of COVID-19 in Prisons?

Judge Roosevelt Willie

With countries taking urgent measures to decongest prison facilities in the wake of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, there is yet no preventive measure being put in place at prison facilities across the country to revert the spread of the disease if there is an outbreak.

The situation has a high risk for prisoners to contract the disease as reports have already indicated poor health conditions for them.

The lack of preventive measures to protect prisoners was highlighted on Monday, May 11, during the opening of the May 2020 Term of Criminal Courts A, B, C, D and E at the Temple of Justice, where utterances there were mainly based on the protection of people who came in conflict with the law and are believed to have been infected with the virus.

Delivering his charge that is believed to have been prepared by the justices of the Supreme Court, which is said to be the first of its kind, Judge Roosevelt Willie of Criminal Court ‘A’ said, “Under no condition shall a party infected with or suspected of being infected with the coronavirus be committed to prison; instead, Health Authority should be properly contacted.”

Judge Willie did not mention anything about protecting detainees at prisons, particularly the Monrovia Central Prison which could easily become a hotspot for the transmission of the virus if not decongested.

The facility was built to accommodate 375, but the population now exceeds 1,700.

Conditions of the detention are caused primarily by the excessive use of pre-trial detention. Procrastination in prosecuting cases of detainees has resulted in overcrowded prisons.

The Monrovia Central Prison was built to accommodate 375, but the population of the facility now exceeds 1,700. (Photo Courtesy: ICRC)

Pre-trial and sentenced detainees are crammed together in dark cells, without sufficient ventilation. Most detainees sleep on the floor without any blankets or mattresses in violation of international and national laws.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Protection of Prisoners states in Section 10:  “All accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating, and ventilation.”

Section 9 (1) also states that Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself. If for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes
necessary for the central prison administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room.

Though Chief Justice Francis Korkpor expressed concern about decongestion of the prison facilities when he spoke at the occasion, those facilities, however, are controlled by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) that is part of the Executive Branch of the Government and not the Judiciary that is being headed by the chief justice.

However, Judge Willie said his prepared charge was backed by Judicial Order #8, which is in support of President Weah’s April 8, 2020 state of emergency for the purpose of fighting the coronavirus disease in Liberia.

That state of emergency did not make any provision of decongesting or measures to curb the spread of the virus in prisons if there is an outbreak.

Judge Willie further said, “Given the foregoing clear and unambiguous language of the 1986 Constitution, the courts for all intents and purposes, must remain operational during the period of the state of emergency; however, where a state of emergency directs as in the instant case that all citizens and residents remain at home, thereby curtailing  the movement of party litigants to whom the courts exclusively cater, the functions of the courts themselves ought to be streamlined and limited, accordingly, especially as a means of preserving life.”


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