By ADRIAN GIBSON
THIS week’s Parliamentary debate and moving of the Correctional Services Bill was not only long overdue, but with a dose of political will (which has unfortunately been lacking), could potentially lead to much needed reforms of the prison system and result in infrastructural upgrades. That is, if the Government is really serious about prison reform.
It would be pointless to merely rename the prison system the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services and simply change the titles of the top brass from Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent to Commissioner, a Deputy Commissioner and an assistant to the deputy without any distinguishable signs of a transformation.
The current 70-year-old Prison Act is archaic. While I offer no excuses or any reason to turn the prison into a comfortable lodging house, one could argue that Her Majesty’s Prison (Fox Hill) is an overcrowded penal facility that creates hardened savages instead of serving as an institution for rehabilitation. I share my good friend Leslie Miller’s view that we should not create, or give anyone the impression that we are creating, a hotel. What I say here today does not conflict with my view that if one does the crime, he should do the time and get any and all of his “just deserts.”
Why not simply privatise the prison? It happens and there are a number of jurisdictions that have outsourced oversight of the day-to-day operations of correction facilities to privately run organisations, for example, operators such as the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc. and Community Education Centers. That said, considering the big government inclinations of elected officials and the vociferous objections likely to arise, a joint government-private sector partnership that results in a private entity (if only for a period) having oversight of the everyday operations at the prison would perhaps be seen as a political no-no.
Over the last few decades, the prison has failed to be a correctional facility and has not adhered to the international standards governing the treatment of prisoners. In the country’s main penal complex, sequestration and payback for those suspected and convicted of crimes appears to me to be the chosen approach, instead of a concerted drive for rehabilitation. Truthfully, rehabilitation could only happen when the inhumane conditions at the prison are improved. Even prison officers are susceptible to mental and physical illnesses resulting from their work environment. The prison service continues to be understaffed and one of the most underpaid arms of law enforcement.
A few years ago, a well-placed senior officer told me in an interview that Her Majesty’s Prison (Fox Hill) had evolved into a ‘corrupt, hellish den’ that was “being run like a doll’s house.” He alleged corruption in the prison and said it had to be investigated.
“I want the public to know all is not well at the prison. Even government material that comes into the prison is known to disappear, with no-one knowing who’s stealing these provisions,” this high-ranking source alleged.
“Officers’ funds have gone missing. The officers’ commissary has been closed for months. Money use to be held there in case officers needed to borrow something to pay school fees or had fallen on hard times. With the past administration, officers could have borrowed money, but they can’t do so anymore. When one looks at the inmates’ commissary, funds are also disappearing from there too.”
Fox Hill prison was constructed in 1953 with the purpose that it would house 400 inmates. Today, the “correctional institution” is bursting at the seams with 1,300 inmates living in foul conditions that regularly turn nonviolent offenders into violent criminals. It is a travesty that one of every 230 Bahamians is currently a resident. The warehousing of non-violent prisoners, pre-trial and for minor offences, significantly contributes to the overflow at the penitentiary.
A few years ago, human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) ranked the Bahamas as having the eighth highest rate of imprisonment in the world.
Some time ago, social activist Rodney Moncur told me:
“I’ve seen situations where it seems the 30 persons are confined to a cramped cell, particularly at the minimum security area at the rear of the prison. In maximum and medium security areas, six or more persons are confined to a cell and everyone can see you using the toilet!”
Indeed, former prisoners suggest that they are packed together while serving their sentences. Even the cells at police stations have come under fire, with allegations of blood and faeces being on the floors of some stations.
In his discussion of prison facilities, Russian novelist/prisoner Fyodor Dostoevsky said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
So, considering the conditions at Fox Hill, are we uncivilised?
Although I would never advocate for prisoners to live luxuriously, while their removal from society should serve as punishment, they should also be trained to become productive citizens. What’s more, there are high instances of HIV, AIDS, TB and other communicable diseases at Fox Hill.
Prison officers have also told me that the rate of attempted suicide is elevated as inmates (particularly non-violent prisoners, locked up for a “joint” or petty criminal act), who become mentally unstable due to the reality of their circumstances, choose to end their lives rather than live nightmarish existences.
Prisoners, past and present, have accused the prison of providing inadequate medical/mental care and, as Amnesty International reported, “specialists in women’s health care are allegedly unavailable.”
In a 2008 talk show appearance, then Prison Superintendent Elliston Rahming was questioned about the predicament of paralysed inmates (eg, those shot in the spine during robberies) and whether they are simply left to lie down and wallow. In a publicly edifying response, Mr Rahming said an inmate in a grim medical state and who is no longer a societal menace can be recommended to the Prerogative Board of Mercy for release.
Although Bahamian taxpayers disburse between $12-14,000 per annum for a single prisoner’s maintenance, the prison remains a poorly ventilated joint where inmates sleep on cardboard, worn-out blankets, hard benches and/or concrete beds. I’m told that even after the persistent bleating in the wind and public relations exercises by former National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest, the much promoted compost toilets failed and that prisoners continue to openly urinate and defecate in slop buckets, share buckets of water for bathing and daily discard mounds of malodorous faeces in garbage bags and wheelbarrows.
So, what about the rate of recidivism?
Research shows that the rate of recidivism currently stands in double figures, leading one to question whether going to prison, even in the horrid state the prison is in, is off-putting to hardened criminals. In The Tribune of December 12, 2007, the former Superintendent himself said that the rate of recidivism at the penitentiary stood at 42 per cent. It appears that there’s a revolving door syndrome afflicting a sizeable percentage who, once released, are stigmatized by unforgiving Bahamians and suspiciously viewed by potential employers who refuse to hire them.
They return to unconducive environments and errant peers and sometimes lack the skills and expertise for certain jobs.
“Many investors don’t want anyone with a criminal record. Even the construction companies are demanding character certificates, so imagine where that leaves most ex-cons,” Rodney Moncur said.
If prisoners at Fox Hill are further exposed to education, job training and drug treatment, and Bahamian employers are sensitised to their plight and encouraged to grant second chances, the rate of recidivism can be dramatically reduced. This, in turn, can also lead to a reduction in the costs to taxpayers.
Weaker inmates, particularly those smaller and younger passive prisoners, are allegedly the victims of rape and sexual abuse by other prisoners or prison guards. New prisoners or those of an alternative lifestyle are easy targets for victimisation and, in many instances, leave the prison with psychosomatic issues, behave sadistically and/or get a sexually transmitted disease.
According to former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:
“The horrors experienced by many young inmates, particularly those who are convicted of nonviolent offences, border on the unimaginable. Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but it is potentially devastating to the human spirit. Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure.”
In the Bahamas, there is a need for sentencing reform, particularly when dealing with minor offences, as persons are sentenced for a small amount of marijuana or petty theft when a more appropriate sentence would be probation or community service.
The size in the population at our main jailhouse could only be reduced through the aforementioned avenues as well as fines and sanctions such as the suspension of drivers’ licences, house arrest and a more organised, efficient system of electronic monitoring (and not necessarily for suspected murderers out on bail either, particularly since my personal belief is that such persons should be last on any list of persons possibly considered for bail, if at all).
It is high time that the Bahamas’ judicial system adopts a system of restorative justice prior to court trials, where each case is examined, particularly as it relates to first-time offenders or persons suspected of petty crimes.
On the Family Islands, before drafting a court summons, a restorative justice system could be widely practised, as close-knit communities can come together to scrutinise the impact of a crime and arrange means for holding an offender responsible. Of course, persons guilty of offences must be apologetic and accountable for their actions and, moreover, be made to pay amends to either a victim or a community. Frankly, the fact that the new Correctional Services Bill features a provision that requires inmates to open an account with a reputable bank, seems to be a step in the right direction and should be used to also ensure that restitution is made in tangible ways to victims and/or the families of victims even if such contributions may be minuscule. Inmates having bank accounts would also assist them in getting on their feet once released from prison, using the funds made on work release programmes and so on.
To alleviate the overcrowding at the prison and/or reduce draconian sentences, especially in instances when minor offences are committed, the Attorney General’s office, in conjunction with judges, must become more open to plea bargaining.
Presently, Fox Hill prison is home to an assortment of skilled labourers. I am told that the Police Conference Centre was constructed by inmates. With that in mind, such inmates could be utilised in the construction of a new prison, preferably in the wide open spaces of Andros or on a secluded cay, faraway from residential areas. Moreover, it would be economical for the government to utilise prison inmates in the restoration of several dilapidated government offices rather than constantly outsourcing everything to ravenous contractors. This presents an almost built-in labour force, one that happens to be comprised of wards of the state.
Of course, the government must compensate these prisoners, who would earn monies in savings accounts and thereby be more independent on release.
Sex offenders, convicted murderers and other outright degenerates should never be released on work programmes.
I have said countless times before, that we must immediately set about creating a local database of sex offenders and outfit them with tracking bracelets.
Rehabilitation entails a convicted inmate accepting responsibility for a crime, working to ensure that it never recurs by learning conflict resolution; respecting other people’s rights/properties and attaining a skill or basic education to become a better citizen.
When it comes to the re-integration of prisoners in society, the church and other NGOs should start and adopt an inmate program when a prisoner is released, so as to provide clothes, meals, a half-way house and help with getting a job.
As the government sets about the passage of the Correctional Services Bill, it must seriously look to construct a new prison and facilitate and support the creation of half-way houses for newly released prisoners, even if such houses are built by private entities or in partnership with government.
Relative to the Commissioner of Corrections, as set out in the new Correctional Services Bill, senior prison officers have told me that they would prefer that the Government sets out in that piece of legislation that any future leader of the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services should come from among their ranks.
While I can see their point, considering that wardens of correction facilities in other countries many times aren’t career correctional officers, I don’t agree with it.
Often, appointing a warden with a background in criminology or some specialist area could go a long way towards fostering institutional reform and also broadening the scope of the leadership.
That’s not to be dismissive of any senior officer within the prison who may also qualify for the job and may rightly deserve it.
I have heard before of instances where female officers have been victimised and sexually harassed.
According to the senior prison officer I interviewed some time ago, some female recruits were transferred throughout the stockade because some senior male/female officers were allegedly sexually harassing them.
When they refused these officers’ advances, they were apparently promptly assigned elsewhere because rejected higher-ranking officer/s may have sought to exact their revenge.
The fact that the new bill seeks to eliminate all forms of gender discrimination among prison officers is a progressive move.
At present, female prison officers are not allowed to carry firearms or work in certain areas of the prison.
Indeed, if the Government takes into consideration my suggestions, some of which have been made in the past, we’ll likely see a reduction in the rate of recidivism and, while they are at it, the Government should also embark on the creation of a mandatory national youth service programme which would undoubtedly assist in rescuing many youngsters, particularly those on the fast track to “Fox Hill” (more on such a service in a later column).