Title: AdvocAid reaches mental health milestone for female detainees in Kenema
Year: 2018

Asiata* suffers from epilepsy. In September 2017, she was detained at the Female Correctional Centre in Kenema town for allegedly killing her son as a result of a seizure. She is now awaiting indictment at the High Court. Since her admittance five months ago, the Kenema Correctional Centre has failed to ensure that Asiata receives appropriate care and treatment. She has, therefore, continued to experience seizures; Asiata frequently reports that she suffers severe headaches and she has collapsed several times.

AdvocAid’s staff regularly monitor Sierra Leone’s prisons to check on the welfare of female detainees. During her monitoring duties, AdvocAid’s Kenema Programme Officer met and interviewed Asiata about her court case, her condition, and the response of the Correctional Centre. There is little awareness of mental health in Sierra Leone and beliefs that mental health problems are a result of witchcraft are prevalent. At times, mental health conditions can be at the root of actions which lead to women being detained.

Fanta* is serving a 36-month sentence at the Kenema Female Correctional Centre for ‘obtaining goods under false pretences’. Fanta has a history of memory loss as a result of emotion stress. She had been a patient at the Kenema Government Hospital until 2016 and was receiving counselling. In June 2017, Fanta was arrested. She had received palm oil worth 5.5 million Leones (approximately US$720) on credit from traders in Kenema; in turn, she sold the palm oil to customers across the border in Guinea. When she returned to Sierra Leone, Fanta’s memory began to deteriorate again and she could not remember everyone she owed money to. When she failed to pay one of the palm oil vendors, they went to the police, who charged Fanta with having obtained the goods under false pretences.[1] Despite her medical record and recent admittance at the Kenema Hospital, Fanta has received no consultation or counselling for her mental health issues whilst in detention.

Few mental health services are available in the country. However, a World Health Organisation project is seeking to address this problem.[2] In 2016, 20 mental health nurses were trained to provide basic care and are now placed in each district. Despite the increase in mental health services, a lack of knowledge can prevent people from accessing these services.

Agnes* was brought to the Correctional Centre in January and is on remand for allegations of child cruelty against her 4-month-old daughter, who has been placed in interim care by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA). The effects of these accusations and of being separated from her daughter have been detrimental to Agnes’ mental health, who shows fear of her fellow inmates and the officers at the Correctional Centre. Unfortunately, however, no action has been taken to try to assess Agnes’ mental health.

AdvocAid’s Kenema Programme Officer listened to Asiata, Fanta, and Agnes’ concerns regarding their mental wellbeing. They did not feel adequately supported and, at times, felt intimidated, undermined, or distressed by their treatment by some officers in the prison. Our Programme Officer was troubled that there was no primary consultation upon the women’s arrival in detention, that the women had no access to medical attention, and that the attitude of some officers seemed to be aggravating the women’s mental health issues.

Last week, AdvocAid’s Programme Officer contacted the district mental health nurse in an effort to seek medical treatment for the women at the Kenema Correctional Centre. On Tuesday, the nurse visited the centre. She interviewed and counselled each of Asiata, Fanta, and Agnes and prescribed appropriate medication for Asiata and Fanta. The district nurse agreed to begin regular visits to the Correctional Centre. She will visit the male and female correctional centres in Kenema every week to provide counselling for the inmates, prescribe appropriate treatment when required, and assess new patients. In addition, the district nurse agreed to provide training for the prison officers in recognising and responding to mental illness.

This is a significant step forward for the women in the Kenema Correctional Centre and one that we will advocate for in other districts. We hope that this will begin to address the mental health needs of inmates and improve the awareness and skills of prison officers. We believe that a conversation about mental health and the criminal justice system is overdue is Sierra Leone. As the government moves to implement a new mental health policy, we will be advocating to ensure women in conflict with the law can access the services available and that the police, judiciary, and correctional service officers are trained to recognise and respond to mental illness.

In order to continue monitoring correctional centres and providing women with welfare support, we need your assistance. Please consider donating to our work through our Global Giving crowdfunding page: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/supporting-female-detainees-in-sierra-leone/

*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities


[1] All too often, women are detained for ‘fraudulent conversion’ or ‘obtaining money or goods under false pretences’. These charges are designed to penalise the intent to defraud; however, they are used in straightforward disputes over debt, which should be civil, not criminal, matters. Read AdvocAid’s report “Women, Debt & Detention” for more information.

[2] For more information see: http://www.afro.who.int/news/improving-access-mental-health-services-sierra-leone