A few years ago at Visa pour l’Image, we discovered the outstanding work by the photographer, Lizzie Sadin, reporting on juvenile offenders – almost a million around the world. Visitors to the exhibition were alarmed to discover the situation of juvenile detainees in prisons in the United States, Russia and Israel, and by the end of the exhibition were in a state of shock after seeing conditions in prisons in Madagascar.

Her work really had an impact on me, and I started doing research into the situation of juvenile detainees in African prisons. Some information was available in writing, but there were very few photographic records.

The goal was to break the silence surrounding juvenile prisoners by doing a targeted report, and I have attempted to do this with shots of juveniles taken in prisons in Sierra Leone and Sudan.

I started the project by contacting organizations working with prisons, but the answers I received were either evasive or negative, or my requests simply met with silence. The press office of Amnesty International Spain had no information on juveniles in African prisons.

I was at Visa pour l’Image when I won a Revela award to do a story on juveniles in custody in Africa. At first I wasn’t all that happy about it; I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to carry out a full project and had no idea how to start. After months of research and inquiries, the photographer Glenna Gordon put me in contact with a university which was doing a study of the legal system and prison system in Sierra Leone.


When I first turned up at Freetown Central Prison, it was tough, and I was scared: I was a white man with a camera, alone with 1 300 detainees living in appalling conditions, and with just a few unarmed guards. Most of the detainees had been there for a long time, awaiting trial or sentencing. The sentences handed down are dreadful and as there is no legal aid, they are cast into this hell for years. There is no hygiene to speak of, and there is very little food or water. The relentless struggle for survival leads to tension and violence. To make matters worse, underage prisoners are victims of violence perpetrated by the adult inmates.

Steven Lebbie was accused of stealing two sheep and taken into custody in 2009. I photographed him in 2010, recording the vacant expression on his face. Two months later he died of an infection, in prison, at the age of seventeen. He had never had any visitors.

As time went by, the inmates began to trust me; I was helped by my experience from my old job working as a nurse: they told me what was wrong with them and I tried to help them by bringing medication. I took photos of their symptoms which I would show at the pharmacy, asking for both the diagnosis and treatment. I should say that none of the NGOs which I contacted offered me any medication or any assistance whatsoever for these people who were in distress.

On my third trip to Freetown, I went with the journalist John Carlin who was sent on an assignment for El País Semanal. We were lucky enough to arrive at the end of Abdul Sesay’s trial. There were two conditions that had to be met before he could be released on parole: two people had to stand security, and a bond of 60 euros had to be paid. After a few hours, Abdul was released, avoiding three years in prison. Abdul was young and I had met him a few months earlier in the unit for detainees being held pending trial, which is the toughest unit. On that particular day he had had nothing to eat or drink, and was too weak to fight for a ration of rice.

After the report came out in El País, a small NGO named “Free Minor Africa” contacted me and we are now trying to raise funds to help these juveniles in prison.

Fernando Moleres

Fernando Moleres

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