At 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, 12 young men are marched up to the main gates inside Monrovia Central Prison. Four of them do not have shoes. Three of them are clutching loose trousers to their thin frames. One of them is shaking with the chills of fever in the heavy mid-day heat. They form a crooked line, disheveled and nervous, not quite able to stand still. But they are all smiling as they anticipate their first taste of liberty.
These men represent just a fraction of the hundreds of pre-trial detainees that make up 90% of those incarcerated in Liberia. For months, they have been locked inside the dark, overcrowded cells of a prison compound holding almost 1,000 inmates in dilapidated buildings built for a maximum of 250 people. Charged with minor crimes, they have been resigned to their incarceration with scant hope that they would ever have access to a legal process and with no knowledge of their constitutional rights. In dirty, clenched fists they held their crumpled writs of arrest. All have been held for more than six months for minor crimes.
One day earlier, these young men were part of an alarming statistic in a country struggling to rebuild its justice sector after more than a decade of civil war. Today however, each one of them—represented by a defense attorney—appear before a magistrate court. Their cases are reviewed and they are formally released on the grounds that they have been detained without due process for longer than Liberia’s laws permit.
These are not isolated cases. Since the inception of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI’s) pre-trial detention program in October 2009, the combined efforts of program partners have resulted in the release of more than 450 detainees from Monrovia Central Prison.
With the support of a one-year grant from the Open Society Institute’s Criminal Justice Initiative, ABA ROLI is partnering with the legal aid program of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) and the Prison Fellowship Liberia’s prison monitoring program to systematically reduce pre-trial detention periods in Monrovia. ABA ROLI and its partners have established a team of three ABA ROLI-trained Liberian lawyers, nine prison monitors and four interns, who recently received their law degrees, to work to reduce prolonged pre-trial detention. The initiative matches qualified practitioners with persons accused of minor crimes. It offers mediation to those accused of civil law crimes. It also conducts ongoing prison monitoring to address detainees’ needs.
The ABA ROLI program complements the Magistrate Sitting Program (MSP), which brings six magistrate courts to Monrovia Central Prison to conduct “fast-track hearings” to process pre-trial detainees. The JPC attorneys, with the assistance of the interns and prison monitors, provide legal aid to many cases processed in the MSP, filling the gap created by the high number of cases and the limited number of public defenders. The team is simultaneously supporting initiatives to ensure better procedures for cases transferred to the circuit courts, which address more serious crimes.
Liberia’s justice system is in urgent need of support and reform. While contributing to the justice system reform efforts in Liberia, ABA ROLI, in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, the judiciary and other partners, is helping bring liberty to hundreds of individuals unjustly exposed to prolonged pre-trial detention.
To learn more about our work in Liberia, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at r[email protected]