Torture Prevention in Sierra Leone

Through collaboration with an innovative grass-roots NGO with a regular presence in prisons and police stations and a strong national advocacy profile the project contributes to torture prevention and human rights protection in Sierra Leone.

Project introduction

In collaboration with local partner Prison Watch the project contributes to torture prevention and human rights protection in correctional centres and police stations through monitoring, knowledge generation, and innovative social interventions. Together we expect to see:

  • the development of more humane and norm-compliant practices of law enforcement and detention and a reduction in degrading treatment and the excessive use of force
  • duty bearers being held accountable for their actions
  • increased interaction between civil society, policy-makers and state officials on the prevention of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

Project description

According to a Human Rights Report of the US State Department (2016), the most significant human rights problems in Sierra Leone include ‘unlawful killing and abusive treatment by police, prolonged detention and imprisonment under harsh and life-threatening conditions, and widespread official corruption in all branches of government’. Prison and detention centre conditions are ‘harsh and potentially life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, lack of clean water, inadequate sanitary conditions, and lack of medical care’. Under such conditions abuses of human rights are common. Prison Watch occupy a unique position in relation to the Correctional Services and the Police in Sierra Leone. Over the years they have established themselves as the ‘go to’ NGO with respect to prison and detention issues. Prison Watch are highly attuned to local context and the importance of a regular presence in places of detention where they skilfully manoeuvre and make the cases for human rights protection of marginalised citizens who end up there.

The project features a four-pronged strategy including monitoring of places of detention, the generation of knowledge, innovative social interventions, and advocacy.


Aim: Better treatment and safeguards for persons deprived of their liberty in line with international norms and standards. Prison Watch will be regularly present in correctional centres and police stations to monitor cases and conditions and engage in on-the-spot lobbying of state officials.

Aim: National dialogue on excessive use of force and correctional officers’ attitudes and practices promoted. Based on systematic studies we will aim to generate national debate.

Social interventions:
Aim: Relationships among and between inmates and correctional staff are improved (with a focus on respectful relationships rather than control). Through innovative social interventions such as Inmate Leaders Meetings and Female Icons Session prisoners will be made aware of their rights and opportunities for conflict resolution and mediation will be present.

Aim: Awareness of human rights as a tool for human security, human dignity and national development is increased.

Project background

DIGNITY’s first engagements in Sierra Leone came less than 5 years after the end of the ‘rebel war’ (1991-2002) and early collaborations were around themes directly related to the aftermath of the war, for example trauma, peace-building, and reconciliation under conditions where the state was characterised as weak or fragile.

Subsequently, research conducted by DIGNITY in 2006 revealed a dysfunctional prison system where detainees were subject to conditions of prolonged uncertainty as they awaited trial or languished beyond their official sentence length. Conditions were deplorable and degrading; resources were scarce; management was inefficient and poorly structured; prison staff were demoralized and disillusioned, only in partial control and heavily dependent on prisoner leaders to maintain order. Against this background DIGNITY initiated a pilot collaboration with Prison Watch in an attempt to mitigate the consequences of this situation and to push for human rights compliance.

Country background

Sierra Leone remains one of the world’s poorest countries and its infrastructure and institutions reflect this. Adding to the challenges of transition from war to peace and a process of democratic consolidation the post-war developmental trajectory was disrupted by an Ebola outbreak (2014-16). WHO declared the country free of Ebola in March 2016 but the anxiety associated with the outbreak brought serious disruption to everyday lives. The prisons were able to stay Ebola free with Prison Watch playing a role in this with support from UN agencies.


With the aim of guaranteeing better treatment and safeguards for persons deprived of their liberty in line with international norms and standards, Prison Watch will continue their regular presence in correctional centres and police stations to monitor cases and conditions and engage in on the spot lobbying of state officials. Prison Watch will conduct training activities on monitoring for its network of human rights advocates across the country. This presents an opportunity to test and apply elements of a DIGNITY monitoring curriculum in a specific local context. DIGNITY will support Prison Watch in the conduct of smaller studies of election-related violence, excess use of force by the police and a survey targeting prison staff.


If you have questions regarding this project you are welcome to contact:

Senior Researcher Andrew M. Jefferson


Sierra Leone

July 2018: Introducing The Prison Watch Monitor. DIGNITY staff members Andrew M. Jefferson and Marie Louise Østergaard have just come back from a trip to our partners in Sierra Leone. There they discovered Prison Watch engaged in a new initiative to counter torture in places of detention. Read more here.


Analysis of the implications for prison policy and practice of the recent elections in Sierra Leone

Written by DIGNITY’s senior researcher Andrew M. Jefferson and visiting fellow Luisa Schneider.


  • Jefferson, A. M., & Jalloh, A. S. (2018). Health provision and health professional roles under compromised circumstances: Lessons from Sierra Leone’s prisons. Criminology & Criminal Justice. Link to article
  • Jefferson, A.M.  and Gaborit, L.S. (2015) Prisons and Human Rights: Comparing Institutional Encounters, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Jefferson, Andrew M. (2017). Exacerbating deprivation: trajectories of confinement in Sierra Leone. In Parole and Beyond: International Experiences of Life After Prison edited by Ruth Armstrong and Ioan Durnescu, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Jefferson, A.M., Feika, M.C., & Jalloh, A. S. (2014). Prison Officers in Sierra Leone: paradoxical puzzles. Prison Service Journal, Issue 212 (March 2014), pp. 39-44: Link to article
  • Jefferson, Andrew M. (2014). The Situated Production of Legitimacy: Perspectives from the Global South In Legitimacy and Criminal Justice. An International Exploration edited by Justice. Tankebe and Alison Liebling. Oxford University Press.

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