By Chris Randall, law student at Berkley School of Law, who volunteered with AdvocAid in 2014
In a small, sunlit courtyard in Koidu Prison, prisoners Aminatta, Hawa, and Kadi* practice pronouncing and writing letters of the English language. These twice-weekly English lessons coordinated by AdvocAid (through their partner EducAid) help pass the time by taking their minds off their long period of remand in prison until their trials begin.
It was in October 2013 that Aminatta was arrested and charged with her husband’s murder. She is accused of fatally stabbing him in a crowded marketplace as he pursued her while publicly provoking and harassing her. This was merely the final incident in a relationship with a long history of abuse and torment. Up until now in August 2014, Aminatta continues to await trial in the High Court of Kono District. Due to a shortage of Judges and resources, there is no permanent High Court in Kono. Rather, the court from Kenema (several hours away) moves to Kono on circuit four times a year. However, reportedly due to a shortage of funds, the High Court has not sat on circuit since December 2013.
Now, Aminatta’s trial will be further delayed as fear of Ebola spreads outside the walls of Koidu Prison. Previously in Kono, it was not uncommon to hear outright denial that Ebola even existed. Yet, almost simultaneously with Ebola’s arrival, latex gloves and tanks of chlorine water became commonplace, in an effort to prevent an infection that had already arrived. Inside the walls of Koidu Prison, although their movement is restricted, Aminatta, Hawa, and Kadi are likely safe from infection because Ebola is only spread by contact with body fluids of a symptomatic person or an infected corpse. However, that does not mean that Ebola is likely not to affect the lives of these three women.
Rather, now with the threat of Ebola gripping Sierra Leone, many public institutions have halted their work under Presidential order in an effort to stop the spread of Ebola. For those institutions not given official orders to close, fears of Ebola often delay the work of individuals, who choose to postpone business in what they perceive to be high-risk areas. This has a dramatic impact on the progress of cases for those in the justice system such as Aminatta, Hawa, and Kadi because neither their Judges nor State lawyers will risk traveling to attend court with the threat of the disease. As unfortunate as it is that women such as Aminatta are already trapped within a weak justice system, their situation is exacerbated by irrational fear and denial of Ebola. Not only do these further spread the disease by obscuring the actual means by which the disease transmits, but they also delay these women’s reintegration into their families and the broader community.
Aminatta writes songs in her English lesson notebook. Singing to God, she asks how long it will take until God comes to her aid and delivers her from bondage. For prisoners like Aminatta, regular visits from AdvocAid paralegals do more than merely assure them that others are actively working upon their cases. These visits and twice-weekly English lessons help provide critical human contact during their seemingly indefinite detentions. In the end, bringing this human element to this seemingly otherwise impenetrable justice system may be one of the most fundamental, yet important dimensions of the work done by these paralegals. It is also this same sense our shared humanity that is of vital importance in coming together to halt the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone.
* Names changed to protect the identities of the women.