MONROVIA: The 2022 Human Rights report on Liberia released by the United States Department of State indicates that “prison conditions in Liberia remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, food shortages, inadequate sanitary conditions, and poor medical care.”
According to the report, gross overcrowding continued to be a problem, particularly in the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP), which held 1,426 inmates in a facility originally built for 374 inmates.
At times, prisoners were required to sleep in shifts due to overcrowding.
The report quoted the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) as stating that prison overcrowding was caused mainly by prolonged pretrial detention, especially at the MCP, delay in preparing indictments for felony cases, and difficulties in transferring case files from magisterial court to circuit court.
In large prison facilities, according to the American State Department report, “juveniles and adults were held in separate cell blocks, but in smaller prisons where juvenile detention was rare, they were held in the same cell blocks as adults, but in separate cells.”
According to the US Government report, the BCR reported 24 prison deaths as of October 31, noting the deaths were due to natural causes with some inmates admitted with existing medical conditions.
The Rural Human Rights Activist Program, a domestic NGO, expressed difficulty in obtaining accurate figures on prison deaths from the BCR, and media reported numerous prison deaths.
For example, media reported that widespread illness at the MCP in December led to six inmate deaths in a span of two weeks due to disease, lack of food and clean drinking water, no medical attention, and overcrowding.
“The BCR reported no major incidents of prison violence or prisoner-on-prisoner violence but stated minor skirmishes were common,” the report added.
The report further asserted that authorities limited visits by inmate families due mainly to overcrowding and lack of prison staff.
The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), local and international NGOs, the United Nations, diplomatic personnel, and media throughout the year, including both scheduled and ad hoc visits.
According to the report, to ease overcrowding, in February, President George Manneh Weah instructed the Ministry of Justice to pardon 500 inmates, excluding those convicted of rape or armed robbery.
On July 26, the president granted executive clemency to an additional 186 inmates, including 31 pretrial detainees.
“In December, due to overcrowding and a health crisis at the MCP, the chief justice of the Supreme Court ordered the release of pretrial detainees who were charged with minor offenses and had already served one month or more in detention,” the report added.
In December, the government began construction of additional facilities at the MCP to lessen overcrowding.
In partnership with NGOs, the BCR renovated facilities in the Kakata, Buchanan, Robertsport, and Tubmanburg prisons.
To improve inmate nutrition, the BCR supported inmate food production pilot projects at the Kakata and Buchanan prisons.
Commenting on Arbitrary Arrest or Detention, the US report indicated that the constitution and law of Liberia prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court.
However, the report asserted that the government did not always observe these prohibitions and rights.
Touching on Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees, the report said “In general, police must have warrants issued by a magistrate to make arrests. The law allows for arrests without a warrant if the necessary paperwork is filed immediately afterwards for review by the appropriate authority. Nonetheless, arrests often were made without judicial authorization, and warrants were sometimes issued without sufficient evidence.”
The law provides that authorities arraign or release detainees within 48 hours. “Detainees generally were informed of the charges against them upon arrest but not always brought before a judge for arraignment within 48 hours,” State Department pointed out.
“The law also provides that, once arraigned, a criminal defendant must be indicted no later than the next succeeding term of court after arrest. If the indicted defendant is not tried within the next succeeding court term and no cause is given, the case against the defendant must be dismissed,” it asserted.
“Nevertheless, cases were rarely dismissed on either ground, making this one of the most frequent abuses of the law,” said the report.
Report: “Approximately 60 percent of pretrial detainees, especially those held for felony offenses, were detained for more than two terms of court without a hearing.”
The report quoted INCHR as saying, “a detainee’s access to a hearing before a judge sometimes depended on whether there was a functioning court or available transportation in the area.”
“The INCHR further stated some jurisdictions occasionally lacked both a prosecutor and a public defender, and the magistrate judge proceeded without them. Additionally, some magistrates solicited money from complainants to transport the accused or convicted to detention,” the 2022 US Country report on Liberia pointed out.
“Detainees have the right to prompt access to counsel, visits from family members, and, if indigent, an attorney provided by the state in criminal cases. The national public defender office was short staffed and faced logistical constraints that hindered visits to rural courts. According to the report, two domestic NGOs also provided legal assistance to some indigent defendants.
Report: “Bail may be paid in cash, property, or insurance, or be granted on personal recognizance or personal surety. The bail system was inefficient and susceptible to corruption.”
The INCHR and other civil rights observers reported that judges misused the bail system, “viewing it as punitive rather than a way to regulate appearance in court. Some judges reportedly used the possibility of bail to solicit bribes,” the American 2022 Human Rights report on Liberia stressed.
Report: “The use of detention as a punitive measure, failure to issue indictments in a timely manner, lack of a functioning bail system, poor court recordkeeping, failure of judges to assign court dates, ineffective assistance of defense counsel, and a lack of resources for public defenders all contributed to prolonged pretrial detention.”
With UNICEF support and in coordination with the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, the Ministry of Justice worked to remove children from the criminal justice system.
As of September 30, 154 children were removed from detention and another 396 cases were mediated under a juvenile diversion program.
Commenting on Denial of Fair Public Trial, the report maintains that “the constitution and laws provide for an independent judiciary, but judges and magistrates were subject to influence and engaged in corruption.”
“Judges reportedly solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors reportedly directed defendants to pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial,” it added.
Report: “Some judicial officials and prosecutors appeared subject to pressure, and the outcome of some trials appeared to be predetermined, especially when the accused persons were politically connected or socially prominent.”
However, the report added that the government and NGOs continued efforts to harmonize the formal and traditional customary justice systems through campaigns to encourage trial of criminal cases in formal courts.
“Traditional leaders were encouraged to defer to police investigators and prosecutors in cases involving murder, rape, and human trafficking.”
On Trial Procedures, the report pointed out that “the constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but judges and magistrates were subject to influence. By law, defendants may opt for a jury trial or a trial by judge. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney, or are provided one at public expense, in a timely manner. Magistrates in remote areas often adjudicated all cases, including land, marriage, and rape cases, sometimes outside their jurisprudential jurisdiction.”
Report: “Defendants have the right to be informed of charges promptly and in detail. If a defendant, complainant, or witness does not speak or understand English, the court is supposed to provide an interpreter, but interpretation was rarely available unless paid for by the defendant. The government usually did not provide sign language interpreters for deaf persons. Defendants also have the right to a trial without delay and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense, although these rights often were not observed,” the report adds.
“Defendants are generally presumed innocent under the law, and they have the right to confront and question prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, present their own evidence and witnesses, and appeal adverse decisions. These rights were sometimes not observed,” the State department maintains