Prison Authority Says It Needs Autonomy

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The United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), say they will support an autonomous prisons body for Liberia.

…To meet human rights standards

By Joaquin Sendolo, New Narratives Justice Correspondent

The Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR), a body under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), has received support from international partners for a draft Act seeking its autonomy. If passed into law, the Act will give the BCR independence from the MoJ, and will enable the body to directly solicit and receive support from international partners.

At present, the BCR faces critical problems, such as overcrowding in prisons, a lack of food and medical care for inmates and an insufficient number of personnel to maintain order.

BCR operates 16 correctional facilities — among them are two major prisons and 14 detention centers in the 15 counties. The bureau now has 30,000 inmates in facilities that have the capacity to accommodate only 1,351 inmates, according to Cllr. Nyenati Tuan, Deputy Justice Minister for Codification.

“The Bureau is unable to meet its human rights obligations with the inmates in terms of feeding, accommodation and good health because of limited resources and poor prison facilities,” says Cllr. Tuan.

Assistant Justice Minister for Corrections and Rehabilitation, Eddie Talawali, who oversees prison facilities and inmates, says separating inmates by severity of crime and age continues to be a challenge.

“The BCR is overwhelmed by overcrowded prison facilities that are not in good condition,” he tells the Daily Observer.

“Because of that, we cannot separate prisoners in categories in line with international standards that call for separation according to age, gender, and the gravity of crimes committed,” he said.

Section 8 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states: “The different categories of prisoners shall be kept in separate institutions or parts of institutions taking account of their sex, age, criminal record, the legal reason for their detention and the necessities of their treatment.”

Section 9 also states: “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.”

Liberian prisons are not meeting these international standards, a fact that Talawali acknowledges. The Monrovia Central Prison, built to accommodate 375 inmates, now has over 1,500 (male and female), according to Talawali.

He says if the BCR is given autonomy and is able to manage its own budget, it will be able to address some of these challenges.

Reverend Francis Kollie, the executive director of Prison Fellowship Liberia, an organization that works with inmates across the country, is concerned about deteriorating conditions in Liberian prisons. Kollie also believes that if the Act is passed, the BCR may be begin addressing these challenges.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), say they will support an autonomous prisons body.

“The UN will support an effective autonomy for the BCR even if it comes to infrastructure because we want a holistic function of the bureau that will respect the rights of inmates,” says Uchenna Emelonye, Country Representative of the UN High Commission on Human Rights.

“Being in prison does not mean all rights are seized; the only right that is limited in the prison is the right to movement,” Emelonye says.

Images displayed at a recently-held stakeholder gathering in Monrovia, where the draft Act was presented, showed appalling conditions of prisons and inmates across Liberia.

The Daily Observer visited prison centers in Bong and Nimba counties, where inmates and staff complained about scarcity of food, lack of safe drinking water, overcrowded and buildings, which were falling apart.

“The government does not have enough support for the prisons,” says Kollie, adding that his organization and other humanitarian organizations sometimes step in to supply prisons with food, medication and other basic needs.

“My organization sometimes liaises with institutions in the United States and Germany to come with health programs that provide medication for the prisoners, and there are times when the corrections officers have to credit food to feed prisoners.  I have witnessed prisoners breaking palm kernels for food,” says Kollie.

BCR is among other government agencies, including the Liberia National Police, the Liberia Immigration Service, Liberia Fire Service, and the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency, that fall under the MoJ.

Those involved in the drafting of the Act contend that the BCR’s reliance on budgetary allotment for the Justice Ministry has led to inefficiencies.

“Prison overcrowding and poor conditions are against human rights. There are no good prison facilities here to host the numerous prisoners so that each person will get the right treatment that is conventionally acceptable.

This draft Act is, therefore, seeking autonomy for the BCR so that it will be able to manage what comes to it directly without the interferences of other functionaries under the Ministry,” says Cllr. Tuan.

“There are people who should be in prison and are not, and others who ought not to be in prison are there,” said Emelonye of UNHCR, urging lawmakers to move forward with the Act.

“I hope the Legislature will not treat this Act with delay tactics for “What they may want to see happening,” but should consider it something that protects the rights of Liberians who are equally their children, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers they represent,” he says.

The Special Assistant to ECOWAS Ambassador, Lola Osunlaly, also views the quest for autonomy for the BCR as ‘necessary’ and says the West African regional bloc will give its full support to the initiative.

Osunlaly said that ECOWAS is also willing to support the training of BCR personnel.

He also raised concerns about poor record keeping on inmates, a key feature of the UN protocol.

Section 7 (1 a, b, and c) states that “In every place where persons are imprisoned there shall be kept a bound registration book with numbered pages in which shall be entered in respect of each prisoner received:  Information concerning his/her identity; the reasons for his/her commitment and the authority there for, and the day and hour of his/her admission and release.”

Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) President and former Solicitor General of Liberia, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, says it is not only enough to support the creation of autonomous BCR, but it is also essential that there be tenured positions for the leadership of the body.

“When the heads serve on a tenured basis, they will be independent and oppose manipulations by high ranking officials of government who sometimes use their power to infringe on the rights of people,” Gongloe told the Observer.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

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