I visited Freetown’s prison for women with Martha Kargbo, jhr’s first BBC World Service Trust Fellow in Sierra Leone. She is producing a feature on how women behind bars maintain contact with their families and communities. What we found is that they often have very little contact with the outside world. Phone calls are difficult and visits with family – including children – are extremely limited. Aside from the problems making contact, there is also a stigma against women who are convicted of crimes and can be stigmatised by their communities even after they are released.
To cope with this isolation from society, we saw that these women formed their own communities, much like a large extended family. Some are in for a few months if they are convicted of marijuana possession, some for years, and one or two on life sentences. They work together sowing clothes and making beaded purses.
It is a right for women with newborns to be able to look after their babies, even if they are in prison. So when there is a baby in the prison, we were told that it is often not only cared for by the biological mother, but by all of them.
The women’s prison in Freetown is not a large facility. It is housed in the former UN Special Courts for war crimes in Sierra Leone. It is not large – there were only 24 women incarcerated at the time of our visit.
When women are released from prison, they face unique challenges reintegrating into society. They often do not have as many job opportunities as men, and the stigma against female convicts can remain in their communities. There are few government programs available to provide assistance, and correctional services say the look to international organizations for support. Some women who have been released meet every week at a local NGO called Advocaid, and have formed something of a support network. There they discuss legal issues, as well as those affecting their careers and personal lives.
Much like in the prison itself, the support group provided acted not only as a network for navigating legal issues after these women were released, but as a community for those who had lost much of theirs during incarceration.