PRESS RELEASE: With People in Detention Vulnerable to Uncontrollable spreads of COVID-19, Ground-Breaking Research Investigates the Gruelling Reality of Female Imprisonment in Sierra Leone

  • First comprehensive study of women in Sierra Leone’s prisons finds 62% of those interviewed were pre-trial detainees
  • Pretrial detention contributes to overcrowding, which is alarming with the current COVID-19 pandemic
  • 34% interviewees had been arrested and detained for survival economic or petty crime
  • Almost three quarters of women interviewed had suffered from intimate partner violence as adults
  • 54% of women said a mental health condition started or deteriorated while detained
  • One in 20 women had attempted suicide or had self-harmed while in prison
  • More than half of the women interviewed were illiterate
  • 52% feared retaliation post-release

Overcrowding in Sierra Leone’s female prisons risks exposing women detained to Covid-19, a new joint research from AdvocAid and Cyrus R. Vance Centre for International Justice suggests. At the core of this situation are long-standing unresolved inefficiencies within the country’s criminal justice system.

This is one of the many ground-breaking findings from a year-long participatory research on the causes and consequences of women’s imprisonment in Sierra Leone. Carried out by the Vance Centre and AdvocAid, the study has interviewed 86% of the women detained in the country in a bid to address the knowledge gap on global female incarceration.

The research found that 62% of women interviewed were held in pre-trial detention. Court backlogs and strict bail conditions lead to women languishing in pre-trial detention for excessive time periods. This is a main cause of overcrowding, which, combined with limited access to water and sanitation, is putting detained women in alarmingly precarious conditions as the current COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

AdvocAid has been calling on the Sierra Leone government to release vulnerable, low risk and pre-trial detainees. However, contrary to the global trends, Sierra Leone is yet to release any prisoners.

“[In the Freetown female correctional center] [t]here are 64 inmates in a space that was meant to hold 18. We have been using offices as cells for inmates, some even share a bed because there is no space.” – Correctional center officer

In an open letter to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights19 organisations from the Women in Prison Network convened by the Vance Center, called for measures to reduce overcrowding in women’s prisons to slow the spread of Covid19.

Another key finding of the study is that the criminalization of poverty is one of the main reasons for overincarceration of women, with 71% of interviewees saying that before going to prison they could only afford one or two meals per day. Almost half had been the main earners of their households and 88% were taking care of at least one child before their arrests. 34 % of the women interviewed had been arrested and detained for economic or petty crime, often committed for their survival or that of their loved one.

“I have eight children and sometimes it was just impossible to take care of them all. So I borrowed some money from a friend but when I couldn’t pay back she turned me in to the police. I am so worried, who will make sure that my children go to school and are well fed now?” – Woman in prison 

The majority of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence – 48% during their childhood, 72% as adults at the hands of their partners, and 45% during adulthood from someone other than their partner. Out of the 24% of women who were in prison for committing a crime against their partner, 94% reported that the partner beat, bullied, belittled, or sexually harmed them before they committed the crime.

“I was a 14-year-old schoolgirl when a man who was older impregnated me. My family decided I should marry him in a traditional wedding so that I wouldn’t give birth out of wedlock. We later moved to Freetown and I gave birth to a baby boy. My husband was financially, physically and emotionally abusive. Every time he was angry at me, he would rape me. He didn’t even give me money to cook and care for our kid so I started cooking and selling fish to support me and the boy. I reported my husband to the police but they did nothing. 

 One day, my husband ate the food I was going to sell for survival and so I asked him to pay me money. He said he would not pay me and he started beating me. I had a knife in my hand because I was cooking when he started squeezing my throat. I stabbed him on his side and he died. There is still no justice for women in Sierra Leone because I kept reporting my husband to the police but they never took me seriously.” 

Other critical contributions of the study include highlights into detained women’s mental health and the lack of appropriate support from authorities. Almost half of the women interviewed reported having suffered from depression and 40% from anxiety before entering prison. These women had been  failed by a system that imprisons them rather than providing treatment. The study further shows that mental health hardly ever plays a role in a judge’s decision. This is due to the fact that there are only two psychiatrists who could conduct a mental health assessment for a criminal trial; the judiciary also told researchers that they have not received adequate training on this issue. Incarceration has a highly negative impact on women’s mental health. 54% of women reported a mental health condition starting or deteriorating while detained and several formerly incarcerated women said that even after their release they had had suicidal thoughts.

“We used to have ropes where inmates used to hang their dresses but an order was given by the manager that all ropes should be banned because we had an inmate who used such rope to strangle herself.” – Correctional center officer

Finally, the study has shed light on police misconduct – some imprisoned women told researcher they were subjected to corrupt and unfair police practices and confessed to crimes without understanding the charges brought against them and their implications. Several of these women said that when they were arrested the police told them they would be able to go home if they signed a confession, only to sign and be charged to court. Others claimed they were presented with a written statement even though they were illiterate and were forced to thumbprint a confession they could not understand. Many were also unable to tell the crime they had been charged with or why they had not been granted bail.

Even after release, women continue to face severe challenges. Some women reported their partners abandoned their children and remarried when they went to prison. In some cases, the families and partners also sold the women’s property, leaving many of them without anything or anyone to go back to when they are released. 52% of incarcerated women interviewed had safety concerns and feared retaliation post-release. Due to the extremely limited earning opportunities for women detained, most of them leave prison with less financial means than when they entered.

 My sister, who has been released, has not been engaged in anything meaningful since. She is now a drunk and acts abnormal. The community considers her an ex-convict and not the best candidate for any job. – Sister of an incarcerated woman 

Marie-Claude Jean-Baptiste, Programs Director at the Vance Center for International Justice, said: “This report has important implications for women in detention not only in Sierra Leone but all over the globe. Research has shown that women’s pathways to prison and the consequences for themselves, families and communities are eerily similar globally. The international and regional legal standards protecting the rights of women in detention are clear. We call on the Sierra Leone government and other international partners, including the donor community, to work together to uphold the rights of women in detention.”

Lydia Kembabazi, AdvocAid’s Legal Manager, said: “The majority of women behind bars should not be detained. The over-incarceration of women, most who come into contact with the law because of poverty or abuse, is causing long-lasting damage to women and children. Sierra Leone should urgently invest in gender-responsive alternatives to incarceration which are less costly to the country and society.”


The study was implemented jointly by the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and AdvocAid. It is part of the Vance Center’s Women in Prison Project.

The research team interviewed 86% of the women detained in Sierra Leone between November and December 2019. The report also includes perspectives of formerly incarcerated women, correctional centre officers, stakeholders working directly or incidentally with women in detention, and family members of women who were or had been to prison at the time.

This study greatly benefitted from the collaboration of the Sierra Leone Correctional Service, which gave the research team access to the correctional centers and permission to interview women in prison and correctional officers. Senior members of the Service also contributed their own views and experience to the research.

The report can be accessed here.

12 August, 2020

The Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty and Status is a coalition of organisations from across the world that advocate for the repeal of laws that target people based on poverty, status or for their activism.


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