Freetown, April 15, 2020: People living in imprisonment are a vulnerable group that need just as much considerable support as any other group more so during health emergencies. As the Corona Virus pandemic continues to spread worldwide, Sierra Leone fell victim and recorded its first case on March 31, 2020 and the figures for confirmed cases is slowly building up as surveillance, case management and testing measures intensify. Since then, life in general has been altered to suite the elusive nature of the killer disease.

Accordingly, the Sierra Leone Correctional Services (SLCS) had to adopt drastic measures to protect its staff and inmates. Part of the changes included suspending, until further notice visitations from relatives and friends of inmates.

The news of the suspension of visitations aroused fear, concern and then tension among the inmates according to Mr. Lamboi, Director General of SLCS. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stepped in to support SLCS towards this situation by procuring 40 mobile phones fully loaded with three months pre-paid subscription (subject to extension based on the COVID-19 situation) so that inmates can keep in touch with their relatives and friends as well as having access to vital services such as medical support. 

The phones will be distributed to each of the 22 correctional facilities with the most crowded and larger ones such as Pademba Road and Mafanta getting at least three (3). Inmates will be allowed to make up to three calls every week for a total of 15minutes. This timing is flexible for inmates accessing medical, legal services and for those with family emergencies.

While phone calls between inmates and relatives might be a regularly available facility, they have not been part of SLCS’ provisions to inmates given that the institution has meagre resources available. Moreover, these resources need to be channeled to the most basic priority needs such health, food, water and sanitation which are not even enough for the high number of people in incarceration.

Apart from inmates using the phones, Correctional Staff and Officers will be able to communicate among themselves about work related issues as the phones have been configured with a ‘user-group’ intercom function.

The phones come in timely in order to maintain stability and avert the tensions that have built up due to the suspension of visitation. The inmates are worried about their children, their wives, parents and all those they love. Since they are locked away from the outside world, they picnic not knowing exactly what is happening and the pandemic has bred so much fears in them. Worry and fear among inmates can culminate into something we would not want. It is therefore important that they stay in touch with their relatives and know what is happening in their communities and the rest of the world. This is a thoughtful act from UNDP for which we are grateful” said Joseph Lamboi, Director General of Sierra Leone Correctional Services who pledged to ensure continuous sustainability of the phones after COVID-19 and UNDP’s support.

The provision of the phone services is just one of the COVID-19 response activities UNDP is supporting SLCS with. Due to the over-population in the correctional facilities in Sierra Leone as it is in most prisons world-wide, preventative measures being advocated for to minimize chances of contracting COVID-19 particularly “…maintaining social distance is just impossible” Mr. Lamboi added. Considering this, UNDP will be refurbishing water and sanitation facilities in the most crowded of Sierra Leone’s prisons and will provide hygiene kits which include hand washing detergents and sanitizers to all correctional centers.

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014 to 2015, UNDP also worked round-the-clock to help prevent the spread of Ebola into the Correctional Centers. UNDP supported the establishment of isolation and holding units in all correctional centers for sick inmates and newly admitted inmates besides other measures that saw the prisons register zero cases throughout the epidemic. Similarly, UNDP will refurbish these isolation and holding units to separate new inmates for 14days which is the WHO recommended period for assessment of possible symptoms, before allowing them to join the other inmates.

UNDP’s support to the Sierra Leone Correctional Services is a long-standing venture through the Rule of Law Project, in its good Governance programme. “Our support to SLCS during this COVID-19 pandemic is a continuation of that work which is the commitment to achieving SDG16-to build peace, justice and strong institutions in Sierra Leone” said Walter Neba, UNDP Rule of Law Specialist and Project Manager ‘From Prisons to Corrections’.

 

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