Due to security concerns in Sierra Leone when the Special Court was established, the first (temporary) courthouse and detention facility were established in 2003 on Bonthe Island, where eight Special Court indictees subsequently made their initial appearances. The Bonthe Island facility was, at the time, a disused compound owned by the Sierra Leone Prison Service, and the Special Court carried out extensive work on the compound and associated buildings to make them habitable. The detention staff at Bonthe Island were made up of Special Court security officers and supervisors. The indictees were relocated to Freetown in August 2003, and in May 2010 the refurbished compound was formally returned to the Sierra Leone Prison Service.
In early 2003, the Special Court Registrar determined that the Court, to provide the required standard of care, the Court needed to recruit qualified prison supervisors with experience in dealing with organised groups, as opposed to dealing with individual detainees. This was especially urgent as leaders of three warring factions were detained together. The first international detention staff members arrived at the Court in June 2003.
Meanwhile in Freetown, the Special Court was working to renovate a crumbling site in the suburb of New England, owned by the National Prison Authority. The 11-1/2 acre site became home to the Special Court. One part of it, had been a holding centre for short-term prisoners, and was deemed an ideal location to house detainees.
The new Special Court Detention Facility comprised two blocks, each with nine cells and an exercise yard, and by August 2003 it was ready to receive the Bonthe Island detainees. Under heavy security, the eight detainees were flown by United Nations helicopter to the middle of the Special Court complex. They were then moved the short remaining distance by vehicle and re-housed in the new facility.
The original eight detainees were joined by Santigie Borbor Kanu in September 2003 and, for three months, Charles Ghankay Taylor in March 2006.
The Freetown detention was staffed by 45 prison officers seconded from the Sierra Leone Prison Service, and six international supervisors, backed by a UN guard force – initially Nigerian peacekeepers from UNAMSIL and after 2005 Mongolian peacekeepers from UNMIL – who were responsible for external security. The Detention Section set up a training programme conducted by international trainers to increase the skills of national staff members to an international standard. This was a significant legacy, since the seconded staff returned to the national system following their service at the Special Court.
On 17 January 2007, indictees Sam Hinga Norman and Issa Hassan Sesay were taken to Dakar, Senegal for surgery which they could not obtain in Sierra Leone. There were accompanied by Special Court Detention and Security staff to the Hospital Aristide de La Dantec. On 22 February, two weeks after undergoing successful hip replacement surgery, Norman suffered a heart attack and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. Norman's death was traumatic for his fellow accused, but also for the Detention staff, especially those who had accompanied him to Dakar.
On 1 March 2007, Issa Sesay returned to the detention facility in Freetown by UN helicopter, and walked the short distance between the helipad and the detention block. On 7 March 2007, Norman's body was returned on a special UN flight and handed over to his family.
Despite such setbacks, the Detention Unit maintained a high standard of professionalism throughout its existence. By the end of September 2010 the eight detainees remaining in Freetown had been convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment which, due to security concerns, they were ordered to serve at Mpanga Prison in Rwanda. On 31 October 2010, under the supervision of Detention and Security staff, the prisoners were flown to Rwanda.
In November 2009 the Registrar formally handed the detention facility over to the Sierra Leone Prison Service. The need to refurbish the facility meant that it was not physically occupied by the national authorities until May 2010. Soon after taking possession, it was used to house women prisoners.
Two years later, the Detention Unit was called back into existence when several persons were accused and subsequently convicted of contempt for interference with witnesses. The Special Court acquired an annex of what was now a woman's prison and converted it into five cells for prisoners serving sentences of from 18 to 30 months.