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Sierra Leone News: Water crisis handcuffs Bo prisoners

A shaft of light penetrates the foul-smelling air through a fist-sized vent, polluting an entire community. Naked, sweating bodies packed side-by-side like sardines, lie in darkness on a greasy concrete floor.  The stench of urine and excreta from a brimming plastic bucket — just one for a cell containing perhaps 20 men — claws at the throat. This prehistoric scene takes place at the Bo Correctional Facility in southern Sierra Leone in 2018. Inmates incarcerated in Bo trek up to four kilometres to polluted streams or hand-dug wells to fill jerricans and haul them back to the jail. The daily scramble for water among thirsty inmates sometimes leads to uproars and violence. Some scarcely get water to drink or wash because the water is rationed, according to Mohamed Opinto Jimmy, a senior prison guard in Bo.  “Given the risk of escape, we usually assign many guards to escort inmates,” said the prison guard, Jimmy. “But inmates are usually stigmatized by locals seeing detainees walking the streets in prison outfits,” Jimmy said “We usually buy water from the fire force or we task inmates to go and fetch water but that too has huge economic stress due to lack of adequate funds,” he said. Bo Correctional Centre is one of the 19 prisons in Sierra Leone that many independent and international voices have described as a “national scandal”. The tableau that emerged was typical Charles Dickens — crammed, poorly-lit cells, whose inmates said they suffered disease, thirst, rotten food, cockroaches and super-sized bedbugs, and a climate of jungle-like violence. “The lack of space is so bad that people have to take turns standing,” while others sleep, said one inmate, who like many others asked not to be named, fearing reprisals by guards. “Blankets and mats are a luxury in our cell. Some even the food we eat has an offensive smell,” said another. “This is a jungle — it’s survival of the fittest,” said one inmate referring to the Darwinian theory of evolution. “Water is so scarce, we sometime wakeup in the morning with no water to drink or to even wash our faces,” another inmate said. “Our greatest problem in jail is lack of water… inmates murmured “water is life” as a prison guard lead them away.

Disease

Disease and the risk of contagion are rife, prison workers said. In Bo, there is a single healthcare worker for 300 inmates, many of whom suffer from chronic illnesses such as TB, AIDS and malaria. “Some inmates are too weak from anaemia to walk around the cell blocks —  they wedge themselves into little corners for food, water and space,” the healthcare worker said. The skin disease scabies is commonplace, but inmates often can only shower once a week because water is rationed. In 2016, Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission lashed the squalor and lack of rehabilitative or educational programmes in the country’s prisons as “inhumane.”

Reform

Within this grim picture, chinks of light are starting to emerge. Walter-Neba Chenwi, a specialist in the rule of law at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which has a project to improve Sierra Leone’s jails, said the conditions “fall far below international standards of human rights.” “UNDP has commenced the rehabilitation of the Bo Correctional Centre water and sanitation facilities and we plan to connect the prison to the Sierra Leone Water Company (SALWAC

O) water supply,” the UNDP Specialist Walter-Neba Chenwi said. Human Resource Director, Dennis Herman, said UNDP and US government has contributed significantly to improve the living standards of inmates. “Const

ruction of a septic tank is underway at the back of the Bo prison compound to address sanitation problems,” Herman added. “We treat people in detention as if they don’t exist,” said Ahmed Jalloh, an activist with a local watchdog group, Prison Watch. But appeals court Judge Nicholas Browne-Marke said that help was also badly needed for Sierra Leone’s under-funded, chronically-clogged judicial system. More than 85% of prisoners are aged between 15 and 35. Many of the young inmates are being held for petty crimes, and spend long periods in prison on remand or during their trial, and this causes congestion in jails, he said.

 

SB/20/10/18

By Saidu Bah

Monday October 22, 2018.

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