Why The Prison Riot Took Place…

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Freetown’s central prison

By Amin Kef Sesay

According to Marta Colomer, Amnesty International West and Central Africa Deputy Director, “The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Freetown’s central prison on 28 April, causing alarm among people detained therein who live in severely cramped conditions. There have been some restrictive measures imposed by the authorities, including the prohibition of visits by their relatives.

“Prisoners are concerned about getting enough food after the prohibition on visits, as well as the spread of the virus and their ability to take preventive measures against COVID-19.

“Yesterday’s riot shows that prisoners are becoming increasingly desperate at the Government’s inaction to protect their right to health.

There must be a prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the reasons that led to the riot and the heavy-handed response from prison guards who used live ammunition… “We are calling on the Sierra Leone authorities to put their promises to release hundreds of detainees into action – unless overcrowding is eased and conditions of detention improved; there is a risk of further riots and infections. They should release all those held in pre-trial detention and consider the release of other prisoners at risk, such as older people and those with underlying medical conditions.”

Pademba Road prison was originally built for a capacity of less than 300 prisoners but today it has more than 1,000 inmates.

Beside overcrowding, insanitary living conditions and poor diet, one of the principal reasons for prison instability is definitely staff shortages. Younger, inexperienced officers are less able to manage difficult and sometimes dangerous situations that can be encountered almost every day in jails.

The impact of staff shortages can affect every aspect of prison life. In the worst case scenarios, if there are too few officers to open cell doors to allow prisoners out to go to work, education, exercise or association, then inmates are likely to be confined to their cells for most of the day.

Been locked up for 24 hours means no opportunities to take showers, phone family or have any exercise. In such conditions, prisons can quickly become pressure-cooker environments, seething with frustration and resentment.

For the majority of prisoners, riots tend to be dreaded as they know there could be weeks or even months of disruption of their daily lives and even collective punishment involving those inmates who didn’t get involved in any trouble.

For those reasons, ringleaders of major riots are rarely regarded as ‘heroes’ by their fellow prisoners, but dangerous rebels who just bring trouble on everyone else.

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