Vance Center Launches Report on Women’s Incarceration in Sierra Leone

July 2020

Although women represent a minority of the global prison population, their imprisonment rate has been growing rapidly over the last two decades. Yet little is known about the causes and consequences of women’s incarceration. To address this knowledge gap, the Vance Center partnered with AdvocAid in Sierra Leone to conduct a year-long participatory research study of the causes and consequences of women’s imprisonment in Sierra Leone.

86% of the women detained in Sierra Leone, as well as their family members and formerly incarcerated women, participated in the research, which is the first comprehensive study on women in prison in the country. The research found that the majority of incarcerated women in Sierra Leone are on pre-trial detention and that the criminalization of poverty is one of the leading causes of the over-incarceration of women. Of the women who participated in the study, 62% were awaiting trial, 34% were in prison for petty offenses and crimes related to poverty and drug abuse, such as drug trafficking, loitering, fraudulent conversion, or obtaining money or goods by false pretense, and 71% said that they could only afford one or two meals per day before going to prison.

The research also uncovered that the majority of women in prison in Sierra Leone are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence – 48% survived at least one form of abuse during childhood, and 72% had suffered violence as adults at the hands of their partners. The study shed light on the lack of appropriate support to address women’s mental health in prison. Mental health hardly ever plays a role in courts’ decisions regarding culpability and sentencing.

Finally, the research highlighted how police misconduct impacts the lives of women in contact with the criminal justice system and the severe challenges women face after leaving prison. It further underlines how structural inequality and gender discrimination have a fundamental impact on women coming in contact with the law and their post-release experiences. The report concludes with key recommendations to the Sierra Leonean government, including decriminalizing and declassifying petty offenses and developing sentencing guidelines which fully take into account mitigating factors such as a history of abuse or mental health conditions in sentencing.

The report was launched at a webinar moderated by Dr. Kathy Boudin, co-director and co-founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University (USA). Speakers included the Hon. David Panda-Noah, Minister of Internal Affairs of Sierra Leone, and Commissioner Simitie Lavaly, from Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission.

This research and resulting advocacy were designed as a blueprint for similar research that other organizations can conduct in their respective countries. They are part of the Vance Center’s Women in Prison Project, which promotes global collaboration on improving conditions of women’s imprisonment. It convenes women prisoners’ rights advocates from the Americas, Africa, and Asia to 1) share information about conditions of women’s imprisonment in their respective countries or regions; and 2) build capacity for improved monitoring and reporting of conditions in women’s prisons.

Read the full report here.

About the Vance Center

The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association advances global justice by engaging lawyers across borders to support civil society and an ethically active legal profession. The Vance Center is a unique collaboration of international lawyers catalyzing public interest innovation that brings together leading law firms and other partners worldwide to pioneer international justice initiatives and provide pro bono legal representation to social justice NGOs.

About the New York City Bar Association

The mission of the New York City Bar Association, which was founded in 1870 and has 25,000 members, is to equip and mobilize a diverse legal profession to practice with excellence, promote reform of the law, and uphold the rule of law and access to justice in support of a fair society and the public interest in our community, our nation, and throughout the world.