Protracted Pre-trial Detention Crowding Prisons and Undermining Access to Justice in Liberia

By Stephen Rodriques, UNDP Resident Representative in Liberia

  MONROVIA-There are more than 3000 persons in prison in Liberia. Around 2,137 (71%) of these are pretrial detainees, meaning their matter has not even been taken to court. Many people spend years in prison without getting a hearing in court or being convicted of a crime, which is a violation of their human rights and contributes to prison overcrowding.

Monrovia Central Prison houses around 1,300 prisoners even though it was designed for only 374 inmates.

At the same time, the Bureau for Correction and Rehabilitation (BCR) is severely financially constrained to provide inmates with adequate food or proper diet, beddings, and sanitary materials, and to prevent and manage the spread of communicable diseases. While prison should be a place of rehabilitation and transformation, the current situation poses numerous risks to both inmates and staff.

All-in-all, prisons in Liberian fall short of international standards, with serious human rights implications for inmates including lack of medical treatment when they fall ill and lack of space such that some sleep standing.

Lengthy pretrial detention and prison overcrowding are two critical challenges undermining access to justice in Liberia.

The slow grinding wheels of justice that keep thousands in prison without trial risk intensifying crimes and criminality as pretrial detainees get hardened by the tough prison life and delayed justice. Some people are held in prison for years – only to be proven innocent. This is a violation of detainees’ human rights and severely erodes the trust in the justice system.

However, behind the grim numbers and news, there are many people working hard to make a difference in the lives of those who are in Liberia’s prisons. While these Correctional Officers sometimes feel despondent given their personal and professional desires to better protect the rights of prisoners, many are still strongly motivated to make a change, to serve humanity, and to be part of something bigger – to help improve the lives of those mostly poor, marginalized and sometimes forgotten detainees.

Correctional officers say there is need for more resources, better information, and more transparency and accountability to transform the prison system and enhance access to justice in Liberia.

Moving Forward

In December 2022, the Superintendent of the Monrovia Central Prison declined to admit new suspects as the number of prisoners soared to 1,600. This raised public attention and debate on the state of the prisons in Liberia and resulted in a meeting between the Chief Justice and the Minister of Justice to address the issue.

The Chief Justice issued a directive introducing several measures to reduce the number of inmates at the Monrovia Prison. For example, convicts who had completed their jail term, but with restitution remaining, were to be brought to court to enter stipulation. All magistrates were also urged to not commit defendants held for minor offenses to jail and to release pretrial detainees who had been held for more than 30 days, which is in contravention of the pre-trial detention Rules of Court.

While these directives of the Chief Justice are important and need to be implemented, more also needs to be done. (We should also note that these directives relate to magisterial courts which have limited jurisdiction, handling only minor offenses. There are many other cases where serious bottlenecks continue to restrict the justice system and lead to over-crowding.)

There are other mechanisms that can complement the measures outlined by the Chief Justice, and which could help address the problem.

For example, more probation sentencing would release petty offenders back into the community under the court’s supervision, rather than sending them to prison. Alternatively, such offenders could be sentenced to community service, especially for those who cannot afford to pay fines.

This, however, requires more probation officers in the field and an upgrading of the skills of existing probation officers, coupled with enactment of the BCR Bill to give the agency budgetary autonomy, which may translate to increased resources and improved services.

The implementation of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is another measure that would enable more cases to be resolved at the community level without resorting to the formal justice system. ADR awareness is currently being conducted by the Ministry of Justice with support from UNDP and Irish Aid, and there are plans also to develop a law to operationalize the policy.

Another effective measure is the Magisterial Sitting Program as it brings court hearings to the prison, enabling more cases to be heard and dispensed with. Case management is also critical because it provides for tracking of cases, the status of inmates and reporting on cases of prolonged pretrial detention.

Plea bargaining, which was adopted in Liberia through recent legislative reforms, should be rolled out after capacity development of justice sector practitioners. Plea bargaining enables the defendant to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge. This can speed up the trial process and help clear case back-logs at the courts.

UNDP stands ready to provide support to the Government of Liberia to ensure that Liberia’s prison conditions improve and meet the norms and standards outlined in The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also known as The Nelson Mandela Rules. However, the Government must fulfill its responsibility and allocate adequate resources to the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation to ensure that the rights of prisoners are always protected.   -End-

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