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Liberia: health care for all detainees

30-09-2011 Feature

Renovating prisons is seldom a top priority for governments during the recovery phase that follows a long war. The ICRC helps authorities around the world to improve prison infrastructure, health and hygiene conditions and water and sanitation systems. This is also the case in Liberia, where the ICRC has been visiting detainees and improving their living conditions since opening its Monrovia delegation in 1990.

Water and sanitation play a crucial role in prison health

It is Friday noon in Monrovia Central Prison. Inmates dressed in orange overalls are busy sweeping the yard, preparing food or filling buckets at the water point. Some detainees wait for visitors, who are allowed in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. James,* 18, regularly receives visits from his mother. But he still finds life in prison tough. "All I want is to get out and go to school," he says.

Moses Pewee  started as superintendent in Monrovia Central Prison in 2006. "When I arrived, the conditions were deplorable. The sewerage system was not functioning and the septic tanks were full. Inmates had a lot of skin problems and they had no mattresses or blankets. In addition, the water system was poor," he recalls.

The ICRC has since repaired the sewerage systems and either repaired or built wells in several Liberian prisons. In Monrovia Central Prison, the organization has also built a 20,000 litre underground water tank and a 10,000 litre water reservoir. These are to be connected to the city's main water supply network, providing water to the prison for the first time since the beginning of the war in 1989.

Prison health care now forms part of national health policy

This past year has seen particular efforts to improve detainee health care. With the ICRC's support, the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare recently included prison health care in its new "Essential Package of Health Services."

"This is an important milestone, because it ensures that inmates have prompt access to basic health services," said ICRC doctor Michael Pastoors. Just this month, the ICRC held a workshop on detainee health care in Monrovia, bringing together superintendents, prison officers and health staff from all of Liberia's fifteen counties.

The ICRC has already helped the authorities to renovate the clinic at Monrovia Central Prison and to open a new clinic and two health rooms in three other prisons. The organization has provided furniture, medical equipment and an initial supply of basic drugs. The ICRC has also helped establish a system for referring detainees who cannot be treated in the prison clinic to Monrovia's biggest hospital. Over 1,400 people in nine prisons have received de-worming medication and antiseptic soap to ease skin problems. The ICRC has also trained health staff in Monrovia Central Prison in how to screen detainees for tuberculosis.

Soap production boosts detainee health and brings in cash

This year, the ICRC has started to provide inmates with the raw materials for making soap. Each of 1,200 inmates receives two bars of soap per month, and surplus soap will be sold on local markets to generate income and ensure ongoing production.

"Getting soap regularly is very important. Before, my skin was very itchy. Now it's much better," said Andrew, 48, who is serving a life sentence. "Things have improved since I've been here, but there's still a lot to be done."

The ICRC continues to provide such basics as mats, blankets, mattresses and mosquito nets.

"Helping authorities to rebuild a functioning prison system after decades of conflict is a long-term investment," says Olivier Martin, the ICRC's head of delegation in Liberia. "With detention activities in nearly 80 countries and visits to half a million detainees around the world every year, the ICRC has the expertise to advise authorities on how to bring living conditions and treatment for detainees up to the minimum national and international standards."

*The names of the detainees have been changed.


Photos

Monrovia Central Prison, Liberia. New wells, improved sewerage systems and water reservoirs have improved living conditions in Liberia's places of detention. 

Monrovia Central Prison, Liberia. New wells, improved sewerage systems and water reservoirs have improved living conditions in Liberia's places of detention.
© ICRC / N. Kero

Monrovia Central Prison, Liberia. Detainees produce soap using raw materials provided by the ICRC. 

Monrovia Central Prison, Liberia. Detainees produce soap using raw materials provided by the ICRC.
© ICRC / N. Kero

Liberia. Family visits and access to the open air are important for the detainees' well-being. 

Liberia. Family visits and access to the open air are important for the detainees' well-being.
© ICRC / N. Kero