Freetown’s female prisoners

Documentary, Photojournalism

Above: I visited an art exhibition here in Freetown in mid-March that was put on by AdvocAid, a charity that helps to support female prisoners in Sierra Leone. The artwork was produced through a series of workshops by the prisoners themselves. The above pictures are self-portraits. Two of them were by convicted murderers.

In 2010, the UN finally passed the UN Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Female Detainees, more than 50 years after the UN Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Detainees was passed, recognising the special needs of women in detention.

Female prisoners in Freetown were finally moved to the ex-Special Court detention facility late last year in compliance with International standards that women should be housed separately from men. (Previously, they were detained in a small section in Pademba Road prison where men are also housed). It is a very positive move however there is still need for access to better services such as health, recreation and rehabilitation. AdvocAid currently provide welfare support and literacy classes in the prison but would like to do skills training and also are planning to build a library which will benefit inmates and prison officers.

Three weeks ago Sierra Leone celebrated it’s 50th Anniversary of Independence (see my previous blog). The government spent $24 million so that the population (certainly of Freetown at least) could celebrate all week long. Parties went on all night and in my new flat music died down for perhaps an hour at around 6.30am. On Sunday morning several of the floats from the lantern parade were dumped across the road; one of their drivers, perhaps high on the “excitement of the weeks events” had crashed it into an electricity pylon the night before causing a local blackout.

The female prisoners had two hours on Tuesday morning allocated for celebrating the anniversary. These photos are from this time.

Above: Some of the prisoners put on an amusing sketch for the others.

The prisoner’s faces have all been blacked out to protect their identity. In fact they all wanted to show their faces – to have their stories told, for the world to see their face and hear their voice. But the prison denies them this right.

Above: Songs, praise and prayer was on the day’s agenda before a bit of food and sodas were handed out for them to enjoy.

Above: Sabrina Mahtani is the co-founder and Executive Director of AdvocAid. She founded it in 2006 with aim to is to strengthen access to justice, including an increased ability to claim rights for women and to empower them as active citizens through the provision of education, welfare and post-prison support.

The prisoners welcomed AdvocAid with open arms – Sabrina and the team are clearly well-recognised by them all, and many of the prisoners have appreciated their work since AdvocAid’s foundation.

Above: Sia is 80 years old and the oldest person on death row. She was convicted of murder in 2009. AdvocAid felt she had strong grounds of appeal after reviewing her case file and had lodged an appeal for her at the Court of Appeal. She was pardoned on Independence Day – the President has a constitutional power to pardon people. She is poor, from a small village in Kono and illiterate (she does not even speak Krio) as is similar for most women in conflict with the law. When she was released she had no money to get home and had never even been to Freetown before. AdvocAid were able to assist her with housing whilst logistics were worked out  for someone to take her back to Kono. AdvocAid also met with the Paramount Chief from the area to assist with reconciliation for her return.

Above and below: Aminatta was sentenced to 15 years for unlawful possession of cannabis. She suffered a stroke in prison possibly because she could not deal with the enormity of her sentence. AdvocAid assisted her with medical treatment whilst she was in hospital. They also spent over 2 years trying to find her court file in order to lodge an appeal for her and 2 others who were also sentenced in the same matter.

Many of the women have children. Often the father’s have left or refused to care for the child. Sometimes the mother will give birth to the child in prison.

Above: Christianity is taught in the prison, written in Krio on the blackboard.

The prisoners were very much sad to see us go and waved enthusiastically as we left. For many I was the first male, let alone white male they had seen in years. If you would like to learn more about AdvocAid, or donate to their cause please visit their website.


10 thoughts on “Freetown’s female prisoners

  1. Thank you very much for these pictures, I am grateful to God that there are folks out there who take the case of these women to heart. I am very anxious to know what kind of help I can offer. I am a 1st year Msc student in The Netherlands with Sierra Leonean parents.
    I will like to volunteer my time to Adcocaid, I will be grateful if you can link me up with somebody. Once again, thanks a lot for these pictures. God bless you all and the women in prison

      1. Thanks Tom for the contact details, Keep up the good work on behalf of these women. The world needs to know that they are alive and waiting to be given another chance at making something better out of their respective lives.
        Good luck with your work, and stay blessed.

  2. Dear All.I saw pictures ,I feel that it is their right to continue their life as ordinary people.when I see them all of them do look hopeful and it is great.Good Luck volunteers and wishes Fatemeh

  3. Thanks Tom for bringing this to the world’s attention. I noted ont of the ladies holding a child. Do you know if that is her child and if yes, do you know if she came in with the child or did she have the child while she was in prison?

    1. Hi Jeneba, I’m afraid I don’t know for that particular individual, but I do know that babies have been brought into the prison with their mothers as well as been born there, so it could be either.

  4. I am shocked and saddened to learn that someone can be sentenced for 15 years in my Country, Sierra Leone for unlawful possessions of cannabis. If this is true, how many sentence years are given to those who embezzle public funds?
    Emmanuel Bello

    1. Hi Emmanuel – yes it is shocking I agree. Unfortunately the public funds question is all to rife across Africa – I’m currently in the DRCongo and they seem to have perfected that sort of behaviour. Perhaps contacting the charity might shed a bit more light on that, but I’m guessing there are very few who are imprisoned for it…

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  6. I am very happy for you Sabrina and will like to help these women in getting their lives back, i have worked in that very prison before and it breaks my heart hearing the cases and the sentences given down to these women. Prisons should be a place to reform not a place to punish people.

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