In a recent tweet, BBCAfrica’s Umaru Fofana highlighted a grave concern plaguing SierraLeone – the alarming state of overcrowding in its correctional facilities.
He stated that as of October 2, 2023, Sierra Leone’s Pademba Road Correctional Center housed a staggering 2,097 inmates, surpassing its capacity by more than sixfold.
A considerable number of these inmates are either remand prisoners stuck in a legal quagmire for months or even years or individuals convicted of minor offences that hardly warrant prolonged incarceration.
He further noted that this dire situation demands urgent attention, and it’s not just a matter of criminality; it’s a fundamental issue of liberty and human rights.
It’s worth noting that the periodic review and release of prisoners by judges at the start of criminal sessions is NOT new. It has been a recurring practice for decades. However, this reactive approach does little to address the root causes of the problem. To make a significant and lasting impact on Sierra Leone’s prison overcrowding, we must embark on comprehensive reforms that tackle the issue at its core.
One crucial aspect of these reforms should involve a thorough review of bail laws and the strict enforcement of compliance by magistrates. The old saying “ar go beat u en lock u up natin nor go commot behen dae” must end. Also, individuals often languish in pretrial detention due to the inability to meet bail conditions, contributing to the overcrowding crisis. By making the bail system fairer and more accessible, we can prevent unnecessary detentions and reduce the prison population.
Furthermore, decriminalizing minor offences, like loitering, can play a pivotal role in reducing the influx of individuals into correctional facilities. Non-payment of debt should be handled as a civil matter, not a criminal offence.
Sierra Leone Police and legal practitioners must cease charging such cases to court, thereby alleviating the burden on the already congested prison system.
Legislative changes are essential. The expedited enactment of the new Criminal Procedure Act can streamline legal processes and ensure swift trials. We should also explore and expand the use of non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment, such as community service, suspended sentences, and probation.
Renaming prisons as correctional services was a good start, but true transformation demands a commitment to rehabilitation programs and reintegration services that can effectively reduce recidivism rates and facilitate safe prisoner reintegration into society.
Efficiency in the justice system is another critical facet of addressing overcrowding. We established firm divisions within the High Court and assigned judges to them, but we do not allow these judges to stay in their divisions.
A judge in the criminal division cannot do criminal cases for one day of the week and other days do civil or other cases. These Judges must be allowed to specialize in their respective divisions to ensure expeditious and judicious handling of cases. Time limits for bringing cases to trial and for the duration of trials can also prevent the unnecessary prolongation of pretrial detention periods.
Addressing prison overcrowding isn’t solely about criminal justice reform. We must delve into the root causes of crime and poverty, significantly contributing to the problem. Investment in vocational education, employment opportunities, and social programs that support vulnerable populations can be instrumental in preventing individuals from resorting to criminal activities in the first place.