The Rights of Our Untried Prisoners – What is The Way forward?

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Chief Justice Francis Korkpor and Justice Minister Benedict Sannoh recently took the bold initiative of visiting a Monrovia Central Prison, where they even conducted a seminar.

The two leading legal officials came away with a same feeling – grave concern about deplorable prison conditions and the overwhelming majority of untried prisoners among the inmate population.

Deplorable prison conditions have long been a serious concern in Liberia. In the 1970s when Counsellor Christiana Tah was appointed Assistant Minister of Justice for rehabilitation, she expressed to the government of President William R. Tolbert Jr., her concerns about prison conditions in the country. Not long thereafter the College of Correction was established in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County. Its purpose was to provide the inmates to vocational training, so that they would begin engaging in farming and other vocational works at the College and, upon their release become gainfully employed.

It is unclear what happened during the 1970s to the Post stockade, the maximum security prison at the Barclay Training Center (BTC) and to Monrovia’s Central Prison. What we do know is that following the April 12 Coup d’état that overthrew the Tolbert government, the GoL’s topmost officials, including the Chief Justice, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and several cabinet members, found themselves suddenly inmates at the post stockade.

It was the tragic twist of fate that none of them had expected. This is why it is a good thing always to care for others in distress even if, like alleged or convicted criminals, they may be responsible for their own fate.

At this juncture we urge the Liberian government to take immediate steps to improve the prisons throughout the country, beginning with Monrovia Central Prison. All the toilet and bathroom facilities should be rehabilitated, and new buildings erected to prevent overcrowding.

It is not farfetched to introduce vocational training at the MCP, which is most probably the nation’s most populated prison facility. We recall that in the early 1950s an experienced agriculturist convicted of manslaughter grew many different kinds of vegetables at the Central Prison. Now that the Monrovia Vocational Training Center (MVTC) is fully rehabilitated, it could be challenged to undertake a prison training program. We call on Chief Justice Korkpor and Justice Minister Sannoh to look into this and convince President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Education Minister George Werner to initiate such a program at the MCP.

There is then the other urgent matter of trial delays that are the main cause of prison overcrowding.

Herein lies the challenge both for the Chief Justice and the Attorney General. The President of the National Bar Association, Counsellor Moses Paygar could also play a crucial role.

The Chief Justice could begin with his judges by urging them to fast-track cases. The CJ, working with the Dean of the Bar and its President, could together bring pressure to bear on the lawyers to engage their clients to move their cases forward.

We know that the issue of fast tracking cases rests not with the judges alone, but also with the lawyers. Judges often reprimand lawyers for not faithfully following their cases. There are also clients who are equally unscrupulous. They would, just to embarrass their legal opponents, advise their lawyers – or the Judges – that they need not “rush” with the cases.

There are also times when plaintiffs have serious difficulties producing witnesses. This, too, leads to case delays. But here, the judge may have the prerogative to throw out cases. For failure of a plaintiff or his or her lawyers to produce witnesses may cause serious delays. And we all remember the classic legal dictum, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Chief Justice Korkpor has admitted that a staggering 84% of the people at the Monrovia Central have not been tried. We consider this a serious indictment of Liberian jurisprudence. The Chief Justice cannot allow this to continue under his watch.

We suggest that Chief Justice Korkpor immediately have his staff and that of the Justice Ministry investigate each of the inmates at Central Prison awaiting trial. Then he should make a determination of which of the inmates should be justly freed.

But to keep people in prison indefinitely without trial is nothing less than a travesty of Justice.

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