By RUPERT MISSICK Jr
IT SITS on about 74 acres on the junction of Fox Hill and Yamacraw roads and is possibly the largest and ugliest blight on the face of the Bahamas’ judicial system.
Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) has been described as a graduate school for criminality and a testament to the nation’s failure to reform its offenders.
International groups like Amnesty International have called HMP “cruel” , described the conditions inside as “inhumane” and the treatment delved out to inmates as “degrading”.
Yesterday debate began in the House of Assembly on an instrument the country’s political directorate hope will be the driver of the institution’s reform.
The Correctional Services Bill 2013 was tabled by Minister of National Security Dr Bernard Nottage last week.
Some of the reforms are cosmetic, like the provision renaming the property “the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services” and changing the title of the Prison Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent to Commissioner, a Deputy Commissioner.
It also removes the words “prisoner”, “prison officer” and “prison” from the vocabulary of the Public Service Act replacing them with “correctional facility”, “correctional officer” and “inmate” respectively.
The issues facing the institution go deeper than the need to update the terms associated with its personnel and a title change to better suit its new mission.
The Bahamas Prison Reform Commission appointed by the Christie Administration to undertake a strategic review of HMP revealed to the government mainly what was widely known for decades.
There is no oversight at HMP to ensure that inmates are treated humanely; to ensure that the institution is functioning properly and established policies are being adhered to.
HMP is overcrowded and close to one-fourth of the inmates are incarcerated for minor, non-violent crimes.
Yesterday Dr Nottage acknowledged that while the maximum security block was built to house 400 inmates, it, since his appointment as minister, has never housed less than 800 persons.
There is no effective and appropriate inmate classification system. New inmates are routinely assigned to the prison’s maximum security block as a means of “breaking them in” before determining their housing placement.
Due to a lack of structured educational or vocational programmes at HMP, three-fourths of the inmates are not involved in any organised work or school programme, making idleness the norm.
Establishment of the Correctional Services Review Board
Perhaps the most significant administrative provision in the Bill is for the establishment of a Correctional Services Review Board.
As a matter of fact, the services this board would render to HMP could be so revolutionary to its function that Dr Nottage lamented yesterday that if HMP has such a board years ago, conditions would not have deteriorated to the levels they are at now.
It is proposed the review board would, among other things, visit and inspect the facility at least once in every quarter.
It is to also to investigate the abuse claims of inmates and to provide an avenue for inmates to lodge complaints.
Work release scheme
The Bill also makes provision for the establishment of a work release scheme where employers approved by the board would employ an inmate.
A person employing an inmate, if requested by the commissioner, will render a report on the conduct of the inmate.
The earnings of the inmate will be paid to the commissioner who will then credit an account held on behalf of the inmate, minus any administrative and banking fees.
In accordance with the proposed Act, the review board is expected to ensure accountability for and the management of the inmate’s earnings.
The board will also, with the approval of the minister, make rules prescribing the manner and conditions in which earnings of inmates are managed, invested and applied.
Inmates with less than two years remaining
The proposed Act allows an inmate who has completed at least one-third of his sentence and has less than two years remaining to engage in work, receive instruction or training in a programme and participate in a church service or programme to promote the successful reintegration of that inmate into society.
Eliminating sexual discrimination
The current Act governing the prison states that female prison officers are not allowed to carry firearms or speak to male inmates.
Also women are only allowed to be promoted to the position of “matron”.
The Act seeks to correct these and all other discriminatory practices with regard to the employment
New functions of the Prison Commissioner
Among the responsibilities of the newly named Commissioner will be, along with the Administrator of the Electronic Monitoring Unit, to monitor the fitting of electronic monitoring devices on inmates and to maintain a register of all persons fitted.
He is also to ensure the humane treatment, reformation, training and rehabilitation of inmates.