Written by Lily Ross

Poor hygiene, overcrowding and extreme violence are just a few of the horrific problems that have been reported in Sierra Leone’s prison system.

At the Bo Correctional Facility in southern Sierra Leone, prisoners lie naked, crammed like sardines onto the concrete floor of a poorly lit cell. Next to them stands a full plastic bucket of excretion and urine, emanating a foul and pervasive stench. Bed bugs and cockroaches roam free. Mohamed Opinto Jimmy, a prison guard at Bo penitentiary, affirms that these cells were built for 4 but currently house 15-20.

These horrendous living conditions are a serious breach of human rights, and contribute to the rampant spread of diseases, such as TB, malaria and AIDS. Healthcare provision is severely inadequate; in Bo, there is a just one health worker for 300 inmates. Yet despite the dirty conditions and the prevalence of disease like scabies, inmates have limited water rations and can only shower once a week.

Prisoners at Bo are made to trek miles to polluted streams or hand-dug wells to fill Jerri cans and lug them back to the jail. The healthcare worker notes that ‘some inmates are too weak from anaemia to walk around the cell blocks, they wedge themselves into little corners for food, water and space.’

These conditions are not unique to Bo. Director of Kenema prison, Lamin Sesay, says that built in 1826 during British colonial rule, the prison accommodates 300 inmates despite having a regulation capacity of 75.

Yet there is hope for change. Sierra Leone’s Department of Justice, with support from the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and the United States, has just formulated a programme ‘From Prison to Corrections,’ designed to train 30 prison officers and promote higher welfare standards. In 8 out of the country’s 19 jails the UNDP is also coordinating construction and rehabilitation work, mainly in water and sanitation. The appeals court Judge Nicholas Browne-Marke has called for assistance to help Sierra Leone’s judicial system, where many young inmates are held in inhumane conditions for petty crimes, which congests jails and leads to overcrowding. He stated that "we are trying to decongest the facilities by expediting trials. A mobile application for pending cases has been developed for all judges and magistrates to encourage a speedy trial and case conclusion."