[JURIST] The Liberian government must work to improve its generally poor prison conditions, according to an Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] assessment [report, PDF; press release] released Wednesday. “Good Intentions Are Not Enough: The Struggle to Reform Liberia’s Prisons” describes an otherwise determined government’s failure to cope with the needs of its prisoners as it struggles to rebuild a country wracked by a 14-year civil war. In 2010 and 2011 AI delegates visited four of Liberia’s 15 prison facilities, some more than once. From these observations AI concluded that prisoner conditions are so poor that they violate basic human rights, and some prisoners suffer permanent physical and/or mental health damage as a result. The cataloged problems listed in the report include severe overcrowding, grossly inadequate health services, inadequate food and drinking water, lack of adequate light, ventilation and time outdoors, poor hygiene and sanitation, and lack of basic necessities such as toiletries and clean bedding. Indeed, in some prisons overcrowding is such a problem that there is not even adequate floor space, let alone bedding, and prisoners must sleep in shifts because they cannot all lie down at the same time. The report notes that many of the identified problems are somewhat representative of conditions across the country’s overall population, but that the state needs to provide a certain level of habitability for prisoners:
It is true that some of these resource problems are also experienced by the general population in Liberia. However, prison inmates are under direct state control and completely dependent on the state to meet their most basic needs. Irrespective of resource constraints, the government must put in place a system that ensures the basic human rights of those in its custody. In all circumstances, the government has a clear and binding obligation not to expose prison inmates to conditions that constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The report also notes that most prisoners have not been convicted of any crime and the vast majority are people living in poverty, without access to lawyers and with few financial resources. In July the AI delegates visited Monrovia Central Prison, the country’s largest facility with a design capacity of 37 —they found a prisoner population of 839.
Liberia has been elsewhere criticized for its poor human rights record in recent years. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] emphasized [UN News Centre report] in a 2010 progress report [text, PDF] that reconciliation in Liberia [JURIST report] hinges on the development of its national security and its legal institutions. Along with poor prison conditions Liberia struggles [JURIST report] with corruption in its criminal justice system and sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and forced marriage, according to a UN Mission in Liberia [official website] combined quarterly report [text, PDF] released in April 2008. In 2007, the UN independent expert on the promotion and protection of human rights in Liberia urged the country to accelerate its human rights efforts [JURIST report], and in particular called on the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) [official website] to begin operations. The TRC held its first public hearings [JURIST report] after several months delay due to lack of funding. The TRC is investigating possible war crimes that occurred during the civil war that ended in 2003, but does not have the authority to try cases.
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