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Incarcerated in Freetown

For some years now, Sierra Leone has stayed off the front pages of the newspapers. People are slowly and arduously rebuilding their country after one of the most savage civil wars in living memory, infamous for the practice of amputation as a means of terrorising the population.

Sierra Leone still scores abysmally low on the UN's Human Development Index - 180 out of a total of 182 countries - but a modicum of normality has returned to the streets of Freetown, the country's ramshackle capital whose name recalls an era of optimism when the country was founded in the late 18th century.

But crime - from petty theft to murder and rape - remains a huge problem in a country so deeply traumatised by more than a decade of fighting that left some 50 000 dead. Many prisons are severely overcrowded - none more so than the notorious Freetown Central Prison, also known as Pademba Road, built to house around 220 inmates, now home to some 1,300 wretched individuals.

Panos photographer Fernando Moleres, who had worked as a nurse before taking up photography, was shocked to see the array of preventable ailments afflicting the prisoners. Scabies, a skin condition that flourishes in unhygienic conditions where people live at close quarters, was rampant. The prisoners dreamed of rainy days when they were able to stand in the yard and enjoy free water. Soap, for a proper wash, had to be bought from the prison authorities.

In the course of three visits, Fernando gained the trust of the prisoners and became a familiar and welcome sight in the prison yard. On each visit, he smuggled basic ointments to alleviate the incessant itching of scabies into the compound and dispensed them to the grateful prisoners. Despite the forbidding conditions, Fernando also discovered a strict code of conduct, enforced by older prisoners, which enabled the prison authorities to manage with a mere nine unarmed guards.

This set of images won the 2nd prize in the Daily Life Stories section of the World Press Photo Awards 2011.

Fernando is the project director and co-founder of Free Minor Africa (FMA), an NGO which works to help minors re-integrate into society after spending time in prison.

Click HERE to view the Multimedia.

A full text by John Carlin is available upon request.
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