Prison Overcrowding Target of New W&L Partnership in Liberia

Lexington, VA Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ryan Decker '09 interviews a pre-trial detainee at Monrovia Central Prison.

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Peter Jetton
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The Washington and Lee School of Law has announced the expansion of its access to justice program in Liberia.

A new partnership with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, and the James A.A. Pierre Judicial Institute in Liberia will focus much needed resources on Liberia's overcrowded prison system.  The initiative was made possible by a Peacebuilding Fund grant administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

W&L's Liberia Law Fellow, Law Class of 2009 graduate Ryan Decker, will work with Liberian law students in the Judicial Scholars program at the Judicial Institute, matching them with magistrates who are holding pretrial hearings in the prison in Monrovia as part of an initiative by the Liberian Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court.  The purpose of the hearing program is to reduce prison overcrowding through expedited processing of backlogged cases. However, the hearing program suffers because the magistrates lack adequate staffing and poor recordkeeping plagues their dockets. The law students will serve as clerks to the magistrates, maintaining court records and helping prepare the magistrates for prisoner hearings. 

"The Liberian prison system is overwhelmed with pre-trial detainees," says Decker. "These students can make a real difference by helping expedite prisoner processing and eventual release."

Liberia's infrastructure and legal system, including its prison system, were left in ruin following the West African nation's fourteen year civil war between 1989 and 2003. Currently, the prisons lack any electronic record-keeping system, which makes tracking individual prisoners through the justice system very difficult. Monrovia Central Prison, in the nation's capital, demonstrates the scale of the problem. The prison currently houses more than 800 inmates, well over 200 percent of its designed capacity.

Hilary Stauffer, formerly a human rights officer for the Israeli Mission in Geneva, served as W&L's Liberia Law Fellow last spring. Stauffer was instrumental in developing the program with the Judicial Scholars and helping to secure funding. Sponsors of the program include W&L, the Carter Foundation, the ABA, and the United Nations, which provided funding through its refugee relief program (UNHCR) and peace-building fund (UNPBF).

Virginia Leavitt, who serves as institutional building advisor in Liberia for the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, believes this project will help the justice sector on a number of levels.

"This is a high-impact/low cost project that shows how we can do great things by coordinating with different donors who share the same goals," she says. "It is also a great opportunity to grow the Judicial Scholars program at the Institute and put the students to work on something concrete."

W&L's efforts in Liberia began in 2008 with the Transnational Law Institute's Liberia Access to Justice Practicum, a joint program including Washington and Lee, the Louis A. Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The practicum's principle goal is to educate and train every academic semester a selected number of W&L and Louis A. Grimes' law students on the human rights of detainees and the role of paralegals working with lawyers to ensure those rights are respected. They also conduct prison visits and work with the Ministry of Justice to promote access to legal services. W&L law students working in the practicum travel to Liberia each semester.

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