Freetown, Sierra Leone – Sorie’s* last day of freedom was a few weeks before his 14th birthday, when the well-to-do father of a girl he liked got word that his daughter had been hanging around with a street boy.
The girl’s father had him arrested for “conspiracy to commit sexual penetration”, and after a brief stay in the local jailhouse, Sorie was transferred to Freetown’s Remand Home, the pretrial destination for most of Sierra Leone’s juvenile detainees.
That was more than three years ago and Sorie has spent every day since living in a cell with 13 other boys, despite having never been formally charged with a crime.
“Her family never came to court and the magistrate never called for me again,” he says, sitting on the edge of the tattered foam mattress he shares with two other inmates.
Orphaned by Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, Sorie is one of dozens of Sierra Leonean children left to languish in juvenile detention, living in perpetual fear of their 18th birthday and transfer to the country’s only adult penitentiary.
But even those who are lucky enough to have been convicted and sent to the Approved School, face unreasonably long sentences for minor crimes.
With a debilitating lack of resources, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare says it is unable to improve upon a system that development partners, civil society and human rights groups say compromises the basic rights of the very children it is supposed to rehabilitate.
“It’s an open secret that we aren’t even meeting our own national standards for juvenile detention, let alone international standards,” said Mambo Feika, director of Prison Watch Sierra Leone, who has worked with the country’s incarcerated children for more than 15 years.
“The biggest problem here is a misplacement of priorities and a complete neglect for the wellbeing of these kids at the highest level of government. There is no protection for the rights of juvenile detainees in this country.”
‘Guilty until proved innocent’
Children accused of a crime in Sierra Leone have no right to due process, despite the country having ratified various international treaties that guarantee such protections. As a result, they are often considered guilty until proved innocent, with detention being the first resort for all offences, regardless of their nature.
“Their problems all start with the police, because they are their first contact with the law,” said Mariatu Bangura, the deputy chief of social services at the Ministry of Social Welfare.
“The officer will get violent with them or say a child is lying about his age. Below age 14 you can’t be criminally liable and these police are supposed to be a filter, but they’re not doing their jobs. We’ve written and distributed age-assessment guidelines, but they don’t use them. The Remand Home is more crowded than it has ever been, and that’s not because children are committing more crimes.”
Remand Home staff estimate that two current inmates are aged between 8 and 10, and say they were physically abused by an officer who arrested them for street fighting and reported them as being 14 years old after they told him they didn’t know their ages.
There are also four inmates who were mistakenly sent to the adult prison after their arresting officers wrote down different ages than those the children gave after they could not produce birth certificates.
“It was the most terrible time,” said 16-year-old Anthony*, who after spending 11 months at the adult prison was discovered by Italian NGO Don Bosco and transferred to the Remand Home in November 2015. “I had to sleep on the floor with no room to move, I had no clothes but my shorts and older prisoners always harassed me … I don’t think anyone would have come for me if [Don Bosco] didn’t find me.”
Anthony began court proceedings after his transfer to the youth facility, but his trial has been adjourned six times for reasons ranging from there being no fuel in the Remand Home court vehicle, to prosecuting attorneys calling in sick.
His case was recently adjourned for another month after the judge determined that, without a birth certificate, they have no proof that he was underage at the time of his arrest, and that the case can’t be pursued in juvenile court until one is produced.
‘You do not find wealthy kids in these facilities’
Of the 49 children currently housed at the Remand Home, an all-time high, 40 have never been indicted. While a handful are recent arrivals, most are held indefinitely, either awaiting trial or unable to make bail.
The majority of the detainees were either homeless or living in unstable conditions before their arrests and Ian Leigh, the logistics officer for Defence for Children International’s Sierra Leone office, says a child’s social background has a direct effect on how quickly they move through the justice system.
“You do not find wealthy kids in these facilities, but rather children who are already very vulnerable,” Leigh said. “When you check their backgrounds, most of these kids were picked up off the streets … Some of them have been committed for years .., sometimes as high as four or five years, for simple offences like larceny, all because they have no one to advocate for them on the outside.”
The Remand Home is a dead end for a child’s schooling, with no educational or technical training options available to them. Inmates are confined to their cells 16 hours a day and are not permitted to leave the cell block, although a dozen of the most well-behaved inmates are let out for two hours on Saturdays to play a game of football. Beyond that, their whole lives are lived within their cells where, without access to bathroom facilities, children must relieve themselves in plastic bags to be collected and disposed of by staff the following day.
David Conteh, the social worker in charge of the facility, calls it a “dark world” where children don’t know their legal status and all requests for funding that could improve their circumstances are routinely ignored by the Ministry of Social Welfare.
“The government does provide basic food but medical, clothing, for those we must depend on NGOs,” Conteh said. “We don’t have the resources to provide the kids with an education. They can’t pay for materials, can’t pay instructors. We used to offer a tailoring course but that social worker has been reassigned so that was the end of that.”
‘We are not useless’
Despite the harsh realities of the Remand Home, there is a silver lining for those lucky enough to be convicted before their 18th birthdays. The long delays at the Remand Home have created an abundance of space at the Approved School across town, the country’s only long-term youth detention facility that, with the help of volunteers and NGOs, provides a significant improvement to a juvenile inmate’s standard of living.
There are no cells at the Approved School, but rather two gender-specific dormitories with individual beds and access to pit latrine toilets. While confined to the dormitory during the evenings, the facility’s 18 inmates spend their days in class, technical training sessions or meandering around the multi-acre compound, where a multitude of different fruits and vegetables are free to pick during harvest season.
Still, the facility has its problems. Two of the campus’ three wells have been unusable for years, and a broken seal on the third renders the water undrinkable, so water is retrieved from a well in the surrounding community. Four kids currently sleep on concrete beds without mattresses, despite a storage room on the campus being filled with hundreds of brand-new mattresses the Ministry of Social Welfare says are being saved for distribution to Ebola survivors.
“We can accommodate 60 kids here, which makes things easier, but we still have challenges,” said Bashiru Rogers, the facility’s Officer in Charge. “We don’t have the requisite resources for many things, including getting these children home after their release and often have to keep them here until we can get assistance.
“Those with long sentences – like a boy we have here given 10 years for stealing a speaker set from his church – we strain to give them psychosocial counselling to prepare them for going to the adult prison, because we will eventually have to send them there.”
The relatively better conditions at the Approved School can be largely accredited to volunteers and a small number of development partners. Tailoring, agriculture and carpentry classes are taught daily by volunteers, while basic education is mostly provided by the Italian Ravera Centre for Rehabilitation of Children, which also provides weekly medical assistance alongside the Irish NGO Goal.
“Life is simple here, very different from the Remand Home,” said Matthew*, a 17-year-old inmate nearing the end of his sentence. “We’re very fortunate the staff care about us here, because the government thinks we’re useless. But we’re not useless. We could be the future of this country if only they would give us the chance.”
To help give children that chance, Prison Watch established a programme in 2012 that allows Approved School detainees to take their primary and basic education exams, with the possibility of their sentences being shortened if they pass. It has resulted in the early release of roughly two children a year since its inception.
“My parents come from a very poor background so without coming here I never would have gotten an education,” said Bobson Bangura, a former inmate who was released last year after scoring top marks in his exams. He and Joseph Gbla, another former inmate who scored just as high on his test, are now enrolled in secondary school, living together in a one-room apartment paid for by Karim Mansary, the facility’s longest-serving volunteer.
Mansary has been at the Approved School for six years and was eventually given his own room at the facility by Rogers’ predecessor so he wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent elsewhere. He does contract work for Prison Watch in the afternoons to pay for Joseph and Bobson’s rent and school fees.
“You want to do everything for these kids, because so often they have nobody else, but there is only so much you can do,” Mansary said. “You think of them like your children, which also hurts when you can’t help everybody. I’m happy to help [Bobson and Joseph] but they’ll have to find their own way when they reach university level.”
While some, like Bobson and Joseph, leave juvenile detention with newfound opportunity, they are the exception to the rule. For every child to come out the other side with an education, there are dozens more who are robbed of theirs by years of neglect and isolation, often ending up back in the system after their release. Children such as Sorie have have given up hope and Feika says the country is at risk of raising a “lost generation”.
“If we continue to criminalise our children, making life-long criminals out of the next generation, we will end up with a failed state,” Feika said. “The threat of war or conflict will always loom as long as we are denying children a place in society. Don’t be surprised if they one day want to reject it, given how it has rejected them.”
*The names of current inmates have been changed to protect their identities.