Riots at Sierra Leone prison in wake of coronavirus confirmation

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Smoke billowed from the central prison in Sierra Leone’s capital and gunfire was heard after a riot following confirmation of a coronavirus case.

Inmates at Pademba Road Prison earlier set buildings on fire in a protest police and security forces quelled, Information Minister Mohamed Rahman Swaray told reporters.

“There are casualties, but these are early days. When the dust settles we will give a more comprehensive account,” Swaray said in a video streamed online.

The prison was rocked by a series of riots in the 2000s due to overcrowding and poor conditions. Its numbers rose recently with the transfer of inmates from a reintegration centre back to the prison due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The West African nation has so far confirmed 104 virus cases and five deaths. On Monday, the Chief Justice said an inmate at Pademba prison tested positive for the disease and was transferred for treatment.

Asked if the riot was linked to the epidemic, Swaray said it was too early to comment on causes of the unrest, adding the situation was under control.

The correctional centre, designed to hold 324 inmates, held over 2 000 in 2019, according to a US State Department human rights report describing conditions in Sierra Leone’s prison system as harsh and life-threatening.