By PACO NUNEZ
Tribune News Editor
NOT long ago, a scathing report on the state of Her Majesty’s Prison, Fox Hill, was released.
The report said the current state of HMP is unacceptable and that the situation cannot continue to be overlooked
Arguing for immediate action, it portrayed the facility as riddled with systematic flaws and serious problems that should be of concern to everyone housed there, everyone who works there, and ultimately every member of the public.
It is worth quoting at length:
“The increase in crime in our society and the number of offenders at HMP has resulted in severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.
“The ratio of officers to inmates is not ideal, and the health and working conditions are a concern to both inmates and officers assigned to watch them.
“There are a number of areas where internal and external security of the prison must be addressed and rectified.
“Given the number of persons incarcerated at HMP and the security risk of transfer to and from the prison, and having due regard for the health of inmates at the prison, a clinic is required at the facility.
“There is need for clear salary and rank structure and a merit-based recognition for prison officers.
“A major challenge remains the escorting of prisoners to and from Her Majesty’s Prison in the morning and afternoon to remand hearings and trial appearances.”
The report also pointed out that as most people sent to prison will eventually end up rejoining society, much more emphasis needs to be placed on rehabilitation in an effort to reduce the chances of them returning to their previous criminal ways.
Under our present laws, it noted, ex-offenders find it difficult to get a job, travel or pursue education.
The report said: “This issue is particularly harsh on young and one-time offenders. Under the current law, a person convicted of a criminal offence is effectively excluded from many basic activities for a minimum period of seven years.
“This period is maintained regardless of the facts of the case or the sentence given to the ex-offender.”
What the report says, in effect, is that every year we are releasing into society dozens if not hundreds of angry, maladjusted, aggressive young men, who just finished spending an extended period of time in cramped, filthy, unhealthy conditions.
To a society nearly paralysed by the fear of crime, the consequences of this should be obvious.
So, how seriously should the government take the warnings outlined in this report?
As it turns out, the answer depends entirely on how much the PLP believes in its own election message.
This is because the report quoted above was not commissioned by the FNM, nor was it compiled by an independent entity or foreign agency; it was lifted verbatim from “The Charter for Governance” – the PLP’s election manifesto.
Before they took office, the situation at Her Majesty’s Prison was critical, according to the party’s own analysis.
So, more than nine months later, and at a moment of major transition as the prison prepares to say goodbye to longtime superintendent Dr Elliston Rahming, replacement to be announced, it is only fair to ask whether the governing party has taken its own warnings seriously and really has a new direction for HMP.
In response to the urgent problems it claimed existed in May 2012, the Charter promised that a PLP government would take a number of steps, including establishing half-way houses to smooth the entry of ex-offenders into society, strengthening existing rehabilitation programmes and even considering plans for the building of a new prison complex.
These plans were listed under “long term interventions” so it is perhaps a bit early for the public to start demanding results.
But what of their short term promises?
Under this category, the PLP promised to:
• Form partnerships with churches, civic organisations and the private sector to help turn ex-offenders into productive citizens.
• Increase prison guard numbers “to ensure that the staff to prisoner ratio reaches safe and acceptable levels”.
• Give prison officers more opportunities to train abroad.
• Lend more structure to the chaos of escorting of prisoners to and from the courts.
• Ensure that a “poly-clinic” would be built at HMP.
• Establish a merit-based recognition programme for prison officers.
• Carry out a “comprehensive strategic review” of HMP that would cover the prison’s budget, human resources and staffing; allocation of resources; salary structure for officers; rank structure; physical infrastructure; inmate rehabilitation.
The PLP also promised to “immediately” amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to make it more helpful to young ex-offenders looking to start a new life.
This last point is the only one to resurface in the public discourse since the Charter was released; Prime Minister Christie promising to amend the Act as part of the “immediate initiatives in our programme of change” during his first budget communication on May 30, 2012.
Minister of State for National Security Keith Bell reiterated this promise in November of last year, but it has not been mentioned again. Meanwhile, the end of the fiscal year is right around the corner with this particular “immediate initiative” as yet unfulfilled.
As for the other short term or immediate promises, not a word.
And according to prison officers, this is not a case of government that is silent but effective.
Despite all the pre-election sensitivity and concern, they say, the prison has been allowed to continue being a hot, crowded breeding-ground for disease.
The guards are still short staffed, underpaid, demoralised. Various security risks remain unaddressed.
We all know that the term “immediate” in political speak means something closer to “soon”, or even “before my five years in office are up”.
But if we imagine that good governments tackle issues in order of perceived importance, the PLP’s failure to address its own concerns about the prison is telling.
It suggests, for instance that the legalisation of gambling houses was considered to be a more pressing issue.
Clearly, as we saw last week, the construction of a new Parliament building is also more important.
And obviously, whether or not January 10 is dubbed a national holiday is by far the more crucial issue.
It could be that the PLP never actually believed things at the prison were all that bad; but knew all too well how far a little fear-mongering can get you around election time.
Except that prison officers agree that the situation really is dire; the guard-to-prisoner ratios are not safe, conditions are sub-human, health is a major concern.
The most likely explanation for the prison’s seeming fall from prominence on the government’s agenda is that the necessary changes would be hard to accomplish.
Effective rehabilitation in particular, is a tricky business that would require extensive retraining of officers and a rigorous attention to detail.
Much easier to spend your time declaring holidays and such like.
The problem is, the PLP were right the first time: prison reform is desperately important to the future of this country.
We talk a great deal about crime nowadays as if it were a self-contained issue, but the state of public safety and the state of the prison are inextricably intertwined.
Through decades of neglect, we have become a nation that manufactures its own criminal underclass, and HMP is the factory.
Thousands of young men have been sent there for committing non-violent offences, or wrongfully by a justice system that has its own deep-seated flaws, only to emerge as hardened, bitter, violent criminals, deeply angry at a society that subjected them to such tortures.
The state of HMP has been raised by politicians at the height of the last few election cycles, only to sink into the background soon after.
It remains to be seen if this group will break with tradition, step up, and fulfil their vitally important promises.
What do you think?
Email any questions or comments to email@example.com, or join the conversation at http://www.tribune242.com/news/opinion/insight/