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Visitors, Inmates Compel To Pay Bribe At Monrovia Central Prison

Monrovia – Liberia’s prison system has come under massive scrutiny for over crowdedness and allegations of corruption, and an ongoing situation at the Monrovia Central Prison has found how visitors and inmates are constrained to pay bribes.

Report by Bettie K. Johnson Mbayo,

Visitors are pulled into a corrupt web that forces them to surrender to an array of unavoidable extortion.

M.P. (she asked only her initials be used in this story to protect her husband’s identity) didn’t know the rule about “underwire bras” when she visited her husband in prison for the first time.

Plastics and metal materials aren’t allowed in the Monrovia Central Prison, one of 10 prisons in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

A guard searched M.P and found it. But she didn’t tell me to take it off or leave the prison, M.P. says.

“Cough it up,’” she was told her.

M.P gave her LD$10 (less than US$0.10), and she was allowed through.

That day, she also paid LD$20 to a guard who checked the food she carried, and paid another LD$20 (less than US$0.20) to a guard who gave her a visitor’s pass.

She paid to sit at a table, paid to warm up the food she brought for her husband, and even paid inmates to notify him that she’d arrived.

He was arrested in August of 2012 and was later found guilty of burglary. He’s serving a five-year sentence.

“The necessity of wanting to see him makes me pay. That is the reality,” M.P. tells an FPA reporter who had also recently visited the prison.

The reporter was constrained to pay bribes along the way and wanted to corroborate her experience with M.P.’s.

“From wanting to see him, hug him, tell him ‘I’m here, don’t be afraid. I will be with you until the end’ – well, you’ll have to pay.”

“Like my father says, ‘Let’s go to the fair, because it’s a spending spree’ at the prison,” she said.

M.P. counts the money in her wallet every time before she plans a visit to her husband at Monrovia Central Prison, where he’s serving a five-year sentence for burglary.

She spends up to LD$800 (about $6.25) for bribery each visit, including transportation to and from the prison.

She uses some of the money for transportation fares and most of it to bribe guards herself, and gives the rest to her husband, who also has his own bribes to pay every day.

Every time she visits her husband she spends at least LD$200 (US$1.5) for bribery. M.P. brings LD$300 (US$2.3) or more for him every time she visits.

He uses the money to turn-hands-over with a LD$50 bribe (US$0.39) to guards at each of his daily roll call, and pays LD$50 every week to access water – both fees go to an inmate who controls the cell.

“If he fails to pay, he most likely face violence or other consequences,” M.P. says.

When she can’t make the visit, she sends money to her husband to enable him pay his regular compulsory bribes.

There are signs posted that say bribes aren’t allowed.

But prison guards make it clear that no one gets pass without paying a price, M.P. said.

Liberia’s prison system is facing allegations of notorious corruption according to the World report.

“Now you ask me: ‘Are you corrupt?’

Today I can tell you: I play in the game of corruption, and not because I want to, but rather because life in this way is making us play,” M.P. says.

Prison officials misappropriated food and other items intended for inmates.

Many prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors.

The local media and the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Prison Fellowship Liberia (PFL) reported that prison officials threatened prisoners’ lives.

Monrovia Central Prison has the highest number of prisoners of any area in the country, and the prisoners there experience corruption at about two times the rate of prisoners elsewhere, according to the 2016 Human Rights Report.

The prison operates at nearly two and one half times its regular 375-person capacity. 63 percent of the inmates are pretrial detainees.

As of September 14, the MCP population of 917 inmates included seven women and four male juveniles, and there were approximately 20 women in other prisons. Prisons remained understaffed and prison personnel salaries were irregularly paid.

MP says money must be pay each time her husband is ill. He is often transported to either John F. Kennedy (JFK) Hospital or Redemption hospital.

In prior years, NGOs reported severe food shortages, but the Ministry of Justice central administration records showed sufficient food purchased and sent to facility warehouses.

In one instance at the MCP, prison officials allegedly sold food taken from a BCR warehouse to inmates through a prison canteen.

The Prison Superintendent in that case was dismissed but not charged and prosecuted after investigation.

The government did not make internal reports and investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions in prisons public; however, the BCR sometimes made prison statistics publicly available.

Most payments are made to enter the prison, to notify the prison that a visitor had arrived or to allow food, clothing or personal items into the prison.

About 85 percent of those payments were made to guards, according to the report.

About 20 prisoners said they’d been forced to pay money for basic services, such as access to drinking water, appliances or going outside to get fresh air.

Nearly all of the prisoners who said they had experienced corruption were afraid to report the incidents because they feared punishments, believed it would be useless or considered bribery a common practice.

A BCR officer who asked for anonymity said, “There are complaints, but that doesn’t mean they happened,” he says.

Prisoners who report corruption don’t face reprisals, he says.

The Press and Public Affairs Director Maude Somah office did not respond to FPA request who made numerous calls to the Affairs, the Ministry has no one heading the Ministry as all responsibilities have been turn over to the human resource director Mynell Jah following a mandate by President George Weah.

There’s broad evidence that corruption in the prison system is much more widespread than the small number of cases handled, the Human Rights Report said.

The prison is one area where broadcast is not done to show guards charging inmates bribes at roll call, beating inmates who didn’t pay up and charging for the sale of drugs.

Prisoners, during a FrontPageAfrica reporter’s visit, were seen colluding with guards and engaging in other illegal activities.

Approximately, 10 of the family representatives who went to visit their family members at the prison said that they had paid bribes to get access as they regularly say “Advice” to everyone that come to the desk.

But prisons are more prone to corruption, Jeff said because of overcrowding and other indicators of poor living conditions.

Prisons often have unhygienic conditions in bedrooms, and kitchens, among other problems.

“As the government is not able to provide these basic conditions, the [prison] authorities take advantage to offer it as a privilege within prisons,” says Jeff, a recent released prisoner.

For M.P, she’s afraid that other inmates and guards could hurt her husband if he doesn’t pay them bribes.

M.P. wants her husband to get a job within the prison. In prison, some inmates make handicrafts to sell, and others work as cleaners or kitchen staff.  He does laundry for other inmates, who pay him LD$10 (less than 10 cents) per garment.

The only solution is a widespread refusal by Liberian society to accept corruption, M.P. says.

“We need everyone to say no but everyone, so that there won’t be a single one who would pay a dollar. Not one, not one, not one,” she says.

“That’s how corruption would be finished.”

But for M.P., it’s not an option to stop paying bribes and thus stop seeing her husband, nor is it an option to stop sending money and leave him to deal with corrupt folks in the prison on his own.

At first, she visited three times a week. Then it was once a week, then once every two weeks.

Now, she tries to visit once a month, but that happens less frequently.

She’ll continue to visit him – and pay bribes – until she has nothing left.

“What little we had saved, and what little the family helped us with, it’s all gone,” she says.

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