Justice that Leaves No One Behind

Sierra Leone’s Journey to Change Perceptions and Practices within its Criminal Justice system

I believe all is not lost. …the Mandela Rules of Minimum Standards tells us that, just the naked incarceration of a person is enough punishment, any other thing else is torture… Fodie Ishmael Kamara — Officer in Charge (OIC), Port Loko Correctional Center.

‘From Prisons to Corrections’

“Governance institutions in Sierra Leone do exist in terms of structures, laws, policies and processes. The overarching challenge is enforcing these laws and policies, in compliance with the processes available. The actual implementation also requires stable institutions. Stable justice institutions and access to justice are crucial to ensuring inclusive development that empowers all especially those people living in poverty.” Moses Sichei, Senior Economic Advisor, UNDP Sierra Leone.

Accordingly, in 2014, Sierra Leone embarked on a transitional journey to reform its criminal justice system by adopting the Sierra Leone Correctional Act following recommendations from national and international bodies. The reformation aimed to ensure that inmates especially from poor and vulnerable backgrounds are accorded the human rights they are entitled to as stipulated in the Mandela Rules (UN Minimum Standard Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners).

To bolster efforts of the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) and the Sierra Leone Correctional Services (SLCS) to accomplish this move, UNDP with funding from the United States Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (US/INL) established the From Prisons to Corrections project in 2015.

In line with the Act, the project began with an assessment of the status of prisons across the country. Consequently, safety and security of inmates, staff and society; inmates’ welfare; inmates’ reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration; human resource and logistics capability, and Staff welfare were identified as the top five priority areas of intervention. Since then, UNDP has been working with INL and SLCS to implement the Act under these five thematic areas across the 19 correctional facilities in Sierra Leone.

Humane incarceration/living conditions

The majority of Sierra Leone’s prisons now Correctional centers were constructed in the preindependence era with a punitive mindset making them incompatible with the demands and growing needs of modern society which focus on human rights in the institution. The facilities are small in both size and number making them overcrowded. Apart from being unfit for human living, the congestion makes the already-meagre welfare services such as food, sanitation, medical facilities more insufficient. The Sierra Leone prison system’s official holding capacity is around 2338 but currently has a total inmate population of about 4500.

…Some prison cells measuring six by nine feet hold nine or more prisoners. Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

These living conditions pose health, safety and security risks not only among the inmates but also to staff and across society. The UNDP project has thus embarked on improving general living conditions and psychosocial wellbeing of inmates in order to facilitate their rehabilitation and consequently reintegration in to the society. Poor treatment and living conditions within prisons increases chances of reoffence among those discharged.

The journey so far

The project has ensured the installation of adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities in 5 out of the 19 facilities, and refurbished 8 prison buildings to increase ventilation, repaired leaking roofs and reconstructed drainage systems. It has also implemented psychosocial support and skills training activities alongside the construction works.


UNDP has been of big help to us. The center had so many challenges. The first one being poor sanitation which UNDP has helped us to alleviate. We were using the bucket system for toileting before UNDP constructed a cesspit and reinstalled the toilets to a state that any normal human being can use. The second one is water scarcity. We used to walk about half a mile to fetch water and worse in especially during the dry season but now they [UNDP] come to our rescue and dug a well and installed storage tanks which will serve the inmates and the officers living with in the periphery of the center. Fodie Ishmael Kamara, OIC Port Loko Correctional Center.

Water scarcity and poor sanitation facilities are cross-cutting problems in the correctional facilities. Coupled with the overcrowding challenge, this leaves inmates susceptible to poor health. They are prone to contracting and spreading diseases that are contagious enough to be passed on among themselves, to their attendants, visiting families and consequently the society. Moreover, responding to inmates’ poor health conditions adds extra burden on the institution’s meagre resources.

The improved WASH conditions with constant clean water supply will contribute to healthier lives for inmates. Inmates at the Bo Male Correctional facility in the pre-implementation needs assessment listed water on top of their list. They are happy now.

“We tell God thanks for your intervention. It was hard for us. We took days without bathing because water was rationed, it was not enough even for drinking. Now we have showers even twice a day. When we are walking on the streets escorting inmates to fetch water the public perception is bad. They think since you are in jail, you are not useful to society again. This makes us feel bad.” *Gassama, inmate, Bo Male Correctional Center.

Such public perceptions are not good for inmates’ rehabilitation process. There are also security risks of taking the inmates out because they can find ways to escape so we are truly thankful for the water supply and sewage system repaired — there is no more stench as it was when you first visited. Jimmy Opito, OIC, Bo Male Correctional Centre

Also, to promote better health among inmates and improve health care provision in Sierra Leone’s prison facilities, UNDP recently procured and donated medical equipment and reagents to SLCS for all the 19 centers’ clinics.

Tackling overcrowding

UNDP helped to reconstruct prison blocks in Waterloo in the West and renovate Mafanta in the North to help aid decongestion of the main correctional centers.

The initiative to reconstruct this facility will greatly help decongestion at the Main male correctional facility in the country — Pademba Road. Inmates from the rural western area will no longer be taken to the main center. It is necessary to decongest the main center because the center was built for 324 inmates today the center does house 2000 or more inmates which is 400 to 500% increase in overcrowding. This is a problem for the entire criminal justice system in terms of effective service delivery. However, credit needs to be given to the administration of the institutions for managing to cope with the situation and limited resources. We were lucky that during the Ebola outbreak, there was no case in the correctional facilities. If that was to happen, then we would have failed. Mohammed Kamara, SLCS Facilities’ Manager.

The ‘new’ Waterloo holding center was a former prison training school block ravaged during the war. After rehabilitation, it will hold 150–200 inmates awaiting trial. It will also be used as simulation ground for trainees from the neighboring Sierra Leone Corrections Training school. Besides decongesting the main correctional center in Freetown, this facility will minimize the security risks and transportation challenges associated with taking detainees for trial.

In Mafanta, UNDP re-constructed to modern standards with water and sanitation facilities two cell blocks which have the capacity to accommodate over 400 inmates.

Earning income and saving whilst incarcerated

“The idea of building prisons in society was based on the punitive aspect of things but now we are moving to restoration wherein inmates are not slaves, they are for us to help them change their mindset so that when they get out of here, they are useful to society. 80% of those incarcerated in the center are youth. It is important for us to change their mindset because the youth age is of advantage to the nation, so we have to make good use of that.” Dennis Harman, SLCS Director of Human Resources.

UNDP and SLCS introduced the Earning Scheme component into the project for inmates to earn a living whilst incarcerated. All the construction labor force required within the facilities was supplied by inmates who were paid daily wages. The initiative then added a saving scheme and opened bank accounts for the working inmates to save the money they earned for family emergencies and future use. Most of the inmates have wives and children back home who depend on them even whilst in incarceration.

“Now with this project I have a bank account for the first time in my life, I am saving small, small and also helping my family who come here asking for help. I will not be like the dog to return to my vomit.” Kanu* a 34 years old inmate, a husband and father of two.

Life by design

The Life by Design component administered through a civil society Organization aims to help facilitate inmates smooth reintegration into society based on retributive justice principles. It informs inmates about retributive justice mechanisms and its importance such as understanding and accepting their wrong doing and benefits of asking for forgiveness from their victims during and after serving sentence. It also facilitates dialogues with community members of inmates before discharge in order to ensure reconciliation between the offender and offended and to solicit community acceptance of former inmates.

“Formal justice systems in Sierra Leone ought to be accessible to all even those outside of major urban centers. That is why UNDP is working with the Governement to employ a holistic approach to justice under the ‘From Prisons to Corrections’ project.” Samuel Doe, Resident Representative, UNDP Sierra Leone.

Skills, hobbies, and recreation

The From Prison to Corrections project also encourages and supports skills training and recreational activities for inmates. They are taught in tailoring, carpentry and weaving among other skills. It has also emphasized on the inclusion of leisure and recreational activities for inmates’ psychosocial development and wellbeing. Inmates in the Correctional centers are now able to engage in indoor and outdoor games, music dance, and drama activites.

Supplementary gardening is another activity which the inmates like to do as it gives them the opportunity to grow their own and alternative sources of food like maize, cassava, potatoes, okra, and pepper to supplement their diet.

We want the inmates to feel useful so that when they get out of prison, they will not feel left out. These activities help to reduce their stress levels and thereby minimizing incidences of violence. The skills they learn are for life. Lamin Sesay, OIC Sefadu Correctional Center, Kenema.

Evidence shows that people in prisons are disproportionately illiterate. It links poverty and low literacy levels to crime and incarceration. “60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate”, and one in four has a learning disability. Therefore, the From Prisons to Corrections project through the training of officers has encouraged and supports adult-literacy initiatives within the centers for inmates interested in improving their basic literacy skills.

These skills help them feel better about themselves besides helping them to cope with isolation from society. The reading and writing skills also improve their chances of securing meaningful employment once released.

*Balogu, 28 years old, an inmate in Sefadu convicted four years ago did not know how to read and write then. Today, he tops at Center’s adult literacy class, scoring straight As in all subjects and, can now write letters.

The ‘Colorado effect’ on the ‘metamorphosis’

The successes of the ‘journey from prisons to corrections’ so far have been made possible by ‘a new breed’ of officers in charge at Sierra Leone’s Correctional Centers.

Every year since 2014 under the same project, prison staff from SLCS are selected by their institution to attend a comprehensive two-week’s skills training and knowledge exchange in Corrections’ Management in Colorado, USA sponsored by UNDP and INL.

So far, a total of 32 officers (in three sets) from Sierra Leone have attended the program in which they have the opportunity to experience first-hand the concept and administration of Corrections as opposed to prisons, across 15 centers in the state.

The officers after the Colorado training returned to take up key roles within SLCS’ management with most of them becoming Correctional Facility Managers and Officers in charge. They are now able to influence and steer positive change within the institution.

We are now well-equipped for this job. We were trained in different areas like psychosocial skills to be able to understand the mindset of inmates and respond to their needs accordingly. We also learnt to let inmates take leadership roles among themselves; the importance of giving them productive work with appreciation and how to treat them with human rights knowledge. We were taken to the animal farms, the green house…we are back to interpret all that into our work and context in metamorphosis from ‘prisons to corrections’. Mohammed Turay, SLCS Facilities Manager.

With funding support from the United States Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (US/INL), the From Prisons to Corrections project aims to improve the institutional capacity of Correctional Facilities in accordance with International Human Rights Standards, and to strengthen SLCS staff capacities to improve inmates’ and staff welfare so as to ensure rehabilitation mechanisms for sustainable reintegration of inmates into society.

“Our aim is to shift both perceptions and practices of the role and purpose of prisons from serving as places of punishment to helping inmates change their behavior and increase their chances of being reintegrated in and being helpful to society thus preventing re-offense”. Walter Neba, Rule of Law Programme Specialist, From Prisons to Corrections, UNDP Sierra Leone.

Overall, UNDP embraces a holistic approach in supporting the Government of Sierra Leone’s efforts to achieve the Sustainabile Development Goals (SDGs). Within the Rule of Law programme besides the From Prisons to Corrections project, it has provided full support towards the implementation of inclusive access to justice in Sierra Leone through support in the review and enactment of the Bail and Sentencing Regulations and to Prison Courts which have assisted justice sector institutions to identify challenges and enhance oversight and management of cases. As a result, the unsentenced population in Sierra Leone’s detention centers has decreased by 11 % since 2015 according to the Sierra Leone Prison Statistics, 2018, thus making progress towards the achievement of SDG 16.3.


*not real names.

Text and photos by Helen Mayelle, Communications Analyst, UNDP Sierra Leone.

UNDP Sierra Leone is part of the UN Development Programme global network to empower lives and build resilient nations. We work with the Government and the people of Sierra Leone, and other development partners to eliminate poverty, inequalities & exclusion to achieve sustainable development. To learn more about our work, please visit: http://www.sl.undp.org/