The Prison Watch Monitor – walking the tightrope
Prison Watch – Sierra Leone (PWSL) have embarked on a new venture. They have launched a monthly newspaper focused exclusively on issues related to the state of Sierra Leone’s prisons and the plight of prisoners. It’s designed, on the one hand, to educate the general public but on the other, and first and foremost, as a means towards a different end, that is to put pressure on the authorities by raising the awareness of key influential actors in a position to put pressure on them.
With graphic headlines, drawing attention to the plight of prisoners languishing in inhumane conditions it seems to signal a return to the days of confrontation between PWSL and the prison authorities. It seems designed to embarrass or even shame the authorities into compliance with basic rights and international norms and standards. This would run counter to PWSL’s approach of the last few years which has featured a more dialogical model where the parties have intimately co-existed as uneasy bedfellows. With a regular presence in prisons, police stations and juvenile institutions PWSL’s preventive strategies have stood out from the dominant model of preventive monitoring and seemed to eschew any desire to name and shame. Is this a change in direction?
PWSL Director Mambu C. Feika does not think so. It is not a return to a confrontative politics of reform. It is rather an attempt to strike a balance between engagement in constructive dialogue and the necessity to (indirectly) speak truth to power, that is to tell it as it is to those with the clout to make a difference. Feika hopes that vendors will be delivering the newspaper to the offices of Ministers, donors and policy advisors putting the issue of prisons not just in the public domain but in the laps of those with influence.
The timing is fortuitous. The first edition of the Prison Watch Monitor came out just a few months after a new President was sworn in following the victory of the opposition party, the SLPP, in national elections. The time is ripe, it seems, for a switch to a noisier, brasher advocacy campaign. The attempt to combine this while maintaining a regular presence in places of detention promises to be a tricky balancing act but one that PWSL are not afraid to attempt. If it results in more human justice, less inhumane treatment and even fewer people subject to debilitating confinement under compromised conditions it will be a risk worth taking.