Sierra Leone's prisons: tough, but Ebola-free

May 25, 2015

Gunning for Ebola: an officer has his temperature checked at the central Freetown maximum-security prison. UNDP trained 186 prison staff in anti-Ebola transmission tactics. Photo: UNDP Matthew Taylor

Freetown, Sierra Leone - Central Freetown’s maximum-security prison was built to house just 324. Today, over 1400 inmates are crammed between its walls.

Cells are packed, record keeping is haphazard and the authorities have barely enough resources to keep it all going. And to top it all off, there’s the lingering threat of Ebola.

“Just one single case would be devastating,” says Pious Bockarie, a UNDP Local Governance Specialist. “People live so close together, so transmission is a serious risk.”

But as the outbreak peaked, UNDP acted fast to keep Ebola out. 

“UNDP wasted no time, and immediately set up an observation and isolation centre,” says Chief Superintendent James Tarawally, from the prison’s correctional service.

“Inmates come in from police cells and court cells. They’re observed for [the Ebola incubation period of] 21 days,” he says.

According to UNDP’s Bockarie: “with the new centre, and the regular health checks, no inmates should be placed in the main prison until they’re medically cleared.”

So far 186 prison staff have been trained in anti-Ebola transmission as part of UNDP’s support. Personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and other materials were handed over to keep both inmates and officers safe.

It’s a disease that can recur, so we ought to be very ready for it,” says Dennis Hermann, Director of Human Resources at Sierra Leone’s Correctional Service. “We’re grateful to UNDP for all their support,” he says.

According Orla Kelly, UNDP Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Officer, the project will grow, with new functions planned for the observation centres as Ebola ebbs.

“We’re building observation units in four other correctional facilities around the country,” she says. “Later, we want to use them as rehabilitation centres. So we’re looking at training, workshops, libraries and other ways we can help the inmates prepare for life outside.”

The Ebola outbreak put serious strain on Sierra Leone’s justice system. Under the state of emergency, more arrests were made and court procedures were slowed or stopped. This led to more people held in pre-trial detention, and even more packed prisons.

“Prison congestion, and the increasing backlog of cases that have not gone to trial, result in some of the biggest human rights issues in the country,” says Kelly.

“Many people are getting stuck in the system for simple reasons like not knowing how to ask for bail, or not having a lawyer to represent them,” she adds.

To cut case numbers, UNDP has helped over 500 people access legal aid since January 2015. 395 of them have already been released.

UNDP has also helped improve prison record keeping, so inmates are not left languishing inside through lost information on their sentences.

Sudipto Mukerjee, UNDP’s Country Director in Sierra Leone, says prison inmates “are some of most vulnerable people in the country.”

“These and other vulnerable groups, need considerable support as Sierra Leone works to recover from Ebola,” he says.

Supporting the most vulnerable is a major focus of the country’s national Ebola recovery plan, which aims to get to, and maintain zero Ebola cases and tackle priorities like healthcare and other service delivery.

To support the government, UNDP is working on its own recovery plan. The 18 month programme should “strengthen the government’s capacity to coordinate the recovery, help put down any future outbreaks, address the socio-economic impact of the disease, and build the resilience of hard-hit communities” says Mukerjee.

UNDP leads the UN's support for Ebola recovery in the three hardest-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. 

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