Liberia's largest prison is holding more than twice its capacity, forcing inmates to sleep in shifts because there is not even enough room for them all to lie down, according to an Amnesty International report released Wednesday.
The international watchdog visited prisons in this West African country, which is still recovering from years of civil war, and found that many inmates also did not have adequate water, food or health care.
"There was no running water in any of the prison facilities we visited and the smell of sewage is overwhelming in most of the cells," said Tawanda Hondora, Deputy Africa Program Director at Amnesty International.
Liberia's Information Minister Cletus Sieh called the report "an exaggeration", but acknowledged taking care of prisons "is one of the challenges we are facing."
"These kinds of report can only put fire to our feet to try to do better," Sieh said.
The report said that inmates are also lacking adequate health care. Common conditions such as malaria, skin infections and eye problems are often not treated and inmates are only transferred to a hospital in an emergency, the report said.
Saah Tamba, 28, told The Associated Press he was thrown into the Monrovia Central Prison for nearly two years on theft charges without being given his day in court. He became blind while incarcerated and was finally released December 2010.
"I think it was due to the darkness in the cell in the day and the bright lights at night," he says.
Liberia's largest prison, Monrovia Central Prison, was built to accommodate about 370 inmates. But Amnesty said that in July 2011 it was holding more than double that with nearly 840 prisoners.
"Conditions were particularly bad in one block where eight men were housed in cells 2 by 3 meters (yards) with only a tiny window for ventilation," it said.
"In some cells there isn't room for all inmates to lie down at the same time so they sleep in shifts," Hondora said.
Inmates also create makeshift hammocks from grain sacks and sling them above the ground. Some prisoners and staff said people sometimes break their ribs or dislocate their shoulders falling from the hammocks at night, the report said.
The report, however, commended the Liberian government for improving sanitation in Monrovia Central Prison and including prison health services in a 10-year national health and policy plan.
Rev. Francis Kollie, head of a local advocacy group, Prison Watch Liberia, said "with the release of this report pressure will be put on the government to fast-track cases to alleviate prison overcrowdedness."
Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003. The country is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers. The government is praised in the report of making "significant progress in its efforts to overcome the legacy of the conflict."