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Sierra Leonean Government Must Stop Killing Defenseless Prisoners

Prisoners have rights! On Wednesday, 29th of April 2020, Sierra Leonians and the whole world woke up to the news that heavily armed Sierra Leone’s State House Presidential Guard stormed the Pademba Road Correctional Centre in Freetown, the nation’s capital, and opened fire on unarmed prisoners who were said to be protesting their safety from the coronavirus. Even though this latest act of human rights abuse in correctional facilities in Sierra Leone might be considered an isolated incident, it is indeed a symptom of a systemic corruption.

It is horrifying enough that several prisoners lost their lives, but even more shocking is the government’s failure to account for the lives of these hapless citizens. The country’s information minister, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, had initially reported that seven people lost their lives: five prisoners and two correctional officers. However, the Sierra Leone Telegraph reports that “ten weeks after the unfortunate killings at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre, the government now claims there were thirty-one fatalities; thirty prisoners and one prison guard.”[1] Apart from those who lost their lives, Telegraph reports that the police handcuffed several recovered prisoners onto lamp posts and tortured them to force out confessions publicly.[2]

It is not clear what instigated the protest.  Several news outlets recount that, following the coronavirus’s contracting by an inmate, the authorities imposed restrictions on visits to the facility, including prohibiting relatives’ visits, thereby blocking their sources of extra food and supplies. Being denied extra nourishment was not the only thing that troubled the prisoners; they were also concerned about the government’s poor handling of sanitation and health and how this might imperil their lives should the virus spread among inmates. Mail & Guardian reports that Sierra Leone’s prisons are notorious for congestion, appalling sanitation, and overcrowding, which expose prisoners daily to atrocious living conditions.[3]  According to France24,[4] inmates often suffer from TB, AIDS, and malaria. They report that inmates eat rotten food, sleep in spaces infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, besides having to figure out how to survive a climate of jungle-like violence. They disclose that due to water shortage and rationing, many inmates can only take their showers once a week, as a result of which many are suffering from scabies.  Besides water, space is another rare commodity. Lacking adequate space due to overcrowding, inmates often took turns to lie down. With the reality of a callous prison system that weaponizes discomfort, brutality, and lack as a correctional philosophy, I believe that all people of conscience would be on the Pademba prisoners’ side for expressing concern over their feeding and health conditions.  According to Amnesty International, the Pademba Road prisoners were “concerned about getting enough food after the prohibition on visits” as well as “becoming increasingly desperate at the government’s inaction to protect their right to health.”[5]

Sadly, the government does not see the prisoners as fellow citizens who are legitimately demanding their rights to life, health, and nourishment but have often viewed their protest as a “prison break” or “an attempt to destabilize the security of the state” to justify the use of “tougher response” and brutal force on vulnerable citizens. It is crucial to provide the socio-economic and political context that informs why citizens, mostly youths, are in prison in the first place and why the government’s killing of vulnerable citizens cannot be justifiable.

Since independence from the British in 1961, Sierra Leone has been experiencing corruption. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) places Sierra Leone in the 119th position out of 179 countries.  Since the late 1960s, political leaders have embarked on scandalous misappropriation of public funds and created a patronage system to cling to power. Apart from corruption, the civil war of 1991 to 2002 and the Ebola pandemic further inflicted economic suffering on the people, increasing frustration among the young population.  Consequently, many of them became susceptible to petty crimes, especially women who became sole providers for their families after the war. Aljazeera reports that more than 85 percent of prisoners in Sierra Leone are aged between 15 and 35, many of whom were incarcerated for petty crimes such as loitering, snatching a phone, traffic offenses, drugs, quarrels, or misdemeanors and, who in most cases, spend long periods of prison remand without being brought to trial. According to the news outlet “female prisoners are arrested for minor, petty offenses such as theft, loitering, disorderly behaviour or debt.”[6] It also reports that because of excessive time in pre-trial detention, most of these women prisoners who are the main providers and caregivers could not take care of their families.

Clearly, the political elites’ irresponsible behavior is a major contributor to why young people are in prisons and not at work. These elites espouse a political economy that perfectly fits what economists David Leonard and Scott Straus describe as personal rule. Personal rule is a self-serving corruption, which involves the “distribution of public goods—offices, public works projects, permits, tax breaks, and so on—in return for loyalty.”[7] In personal rule, public property is treated as private property, used for patronage, resulting in a lack of public investment. In a personal rule economy such as Sierra Leone, corrupt leaders lack the moral courage to do what is right and proper to raise people’s material wellbeing. They neither seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people nor let their action flow from a sense of moral duty to the citizens, but rather they serve their own self-interest.

It is a moral indictment on the government and elites of Sierra Leone that despite being endowed with mineral wealth, a vast majority of the people live below the poverty level. It is terribly unjust that the elites who steal millions get a pass while petty criminals are incarcerated, tortured, and shot for asking for their rights to food and medical care. The government might claim that the law does not protect the life of a prisoner who protests or riots. This claim may be premised on the country’s 1991 Constitution which states that whereas  no person should be killed intentionally unless directed by the act of a court in respect of a criminal offense for which the person has been convicted,[8] such right is denied a citizen who is killed in the course of  “trying to suppress a riot or insurrection or mutiny.”[9] Although the government might determine that subduing prisoners is necessary to prevent prisoners from escaping and constituting serious danger to society, yet it is arguable between a corrupt leader and a petty prisoner who might portend more danger to society.

The authorities must realize that a prisoner remains a citizen whose humanity deserves some respect and the right to protest if their dignity is violated. Even though Sierra Leone still applies the 1965 Public Order Act, a colonial legacy, which authorized the police to use force to quell a protest, such action must be in line with the country’s pledge to protect human rights as enshrined in regional and international charters.  The leadership must also hold itself accountable to its constitutional duty to “recognize, maintain and enhance the sanctity of the human person and dignity.”[10]

Since Sierra Leone’s judicial system provides room for offenders to correct their wrongdoings, the government must ensure that the prison is indeed a “correctional” facility and not a “concentration” camp where citizens’ lives are terminated. The goal of imprisonment for petty misdemeanors, enacted out of economic desperation, should be rehabilitation, not execution. The government must remind itself of its primary duty to protect its people’s lives, especially that of vulnerable citizens who are in prison. International laws do not guarantee the use of lethal force against a prisoner. A resolution of the United Nations General Assembly states that “No person under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and that “No circumstance whatever may be invoked as a justification for torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”[11] The Sierra Leone Constitution also forbids cruelty when it declares that, “No person shall be subject to any form of torture or any punishment or other treatment which is inhumane and degrading.”[12]

Sierra Leonean leaders and other leaders in Africa must not forget that Africa holds every life with honor and dignity, including defenseless people’s lives. Perhaps they have forgotten, but it is important to remind them of Africa’s ethical goal: to preserve and protect life. They must begin to take seriously Africa’s belief that taking the life of another human being destroys community and ruptures the spiritual harmony between us and our ancestors—a prerequisite for our wellbeing. They must know that as compatriots, prisoners should have equal access to food and medical care just like any other citizen. Any political leader that denies citizens the right to food, medication, and life is not different from a thief who steals what equally belongs to other people.  If the prisoners are not well fed or medicated, it means that someone is stealing. This entails that leaders should let themselves be guided by the principle of the common good and solidarity in deploying national resources. These Christian principles mean reclaiming and practicing the age-long African communalism embodied in Ubuntu— “I am because you are, we are because you are.”

What does it mean for the government to inhabit the spirit of ubuntu? It entails that the government must support and cooperate with faith-based groups and NGOs that are constantly reminding us of our duty to protect and care for the vulnerable among us. According to Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a group like Caritas Freetown, along with other partners, is working to decongest prisons despite the government’s reluctance. They also offer legal representation for prisoners especially those wrongfully incarcerated.[13] These organizations can only do so much, so the government must complement their efforts, not only because it is a humane thing to do but also because it is its responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens.

Sierra Leonean leaders must end the cycle of corruption and selfishness which results in unjust and inhumane incarceration and a “culture of death,” and instead embrace a “culture of life” brought forth by African Ubuntu and Christian values of respect and sharing. At a period when youths of its more influential neighbor Nigeria are carrying out EndSARS protest against police brutality and bad governance, it is time for leaders in Sierra Leone to stop killing and stealing from its own people in order to forestall such an uprising as witnessed in Nigeria.

[1] Abdul Rashid Thomas, “Open letter to President Julius Maada Bio about official report on the massacre of prisoners,” Sierra Leone Telegraph (July 12, 2020).

[2] Abdul Rashid Thomas, “Freetown prison rioting – 9 dead and dozens critically injured,” Sierra Leone Telegraph (April 30, 2020).

[3] Abdul S Brima, “Prisoners Riot in Sierra Leone,” Mail&Guardian (May 14, 2020).

[4] “Doing time in ‘Hell’: Life in Sierra Leone’s rundown prisons,” France24 (October 21, 2018).

[5] Amnesty International, “Sierra Leone: Reasons underlying prison riot amid COVID-19 case must be investigated” (April 30, 2020).

[6] Maeve O’Gorman and Sabrina Mahtani, “Inside Sierra Leone’s maximum security prison for women,” Aljazeera (March 25, 2018).

[7] David Leonard and Scott Straus, Africa’s Stalled Development: International Causes and

Cures (Boulder, CO: London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), 2.

[8] The Constitution of Sierra Leone (1991), Chapter III, 16 (1) 

[9] Ibid., Chapter III, 16 (2), c. 

[10] Constitution, Chapter II, 8(1).

[11] United Nations General Assembly resolution 43/173 of the 9 December 1988 (Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment: resolution).

[12] Constitution, Chapter III, 20(1).

[13] Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Sierra Leone: Prison Reforms Bring No Relief, 16 August 2016.