By Rupert Missick JR
IT’S long been said that the overcrowding at Her Majesty’s Prison has been a breeding ground for criminal activity.
It is a place where persons convicted of relatively petty, non-violent or victimless crimes are housed alongside career criminals.
This, compounded by decades of deplorable living conditions, makes HMP a graduate school for those who become some of the nation’s most hardened offenders, according to lawyer Paul Moss.
He said: “When you have a situation where a person who may have been accused of disorderly conduct ends up inside the prison you are not helping. You have violent crimes, crimes where a person may be injured, where a person may be traumatised or killed. Those are different from other crimes. So when a person misses a court date that is different from someone accused of rape, murder or armed robbery.”
Mr Moss said because the Bahamas has the highest rate of incarceration in the Caribbean, serious consideration needs to be given to changing the prison from a punitive institution to a rehabilitative facility.
Her Majesty’s Prison continues to fail to meet international standards, with overcrowding and access to adequate medical care presenting major problems in the men’s maximum-security block.
“I don’t know how we can believe putting people in that condition can help them come out better it’s just not going to happen,” Mr Moss said.
In August last year, authorities reported that the daily population of the prison and the remand centre exceeded 1,600, compared with 1,300 in October 2011.
Minister of National Security Bernard Nottage characterised the extent of overcrowding at the prison as “unacceptable”, attributing the overcrowding to the large number of petty criminals incarcerated and the backlog in processing at the remand centre.
In June, the prison superintendent reported the maximum-security wing of the prison held nearly 900 inmates, which was twice the number of inmates it was built to house when constructed by authorities in 1953.
Authorities reported that as many as six inmates were confined to cells intended for one or two prisoners. Others are housed in poorly ventilated and poorly lit cells that lacked regular running water.
In 2010 authorities installed composting toilets in an attempt to move away from the unsanitary practice of removing human waste by bucket, or “slopping”.
“When one sees the way food is delivered to inmates in huge pots sometimes dragged through the corridors. If there is a chicken, the inmate inside of the cell will give their bowl and the chicken is placed in the bowl with the hands of the inmate serving. Even if he has gloves on it is the most pointless thing because although he has gloves on his hands are touching the bars, touching the crates, touching all manner of things. Those things can be corrected - if there was a will to do it - overnight,” Mr Moss said.
According to a report entitled: “Rehabilitation of Inmates: A National Imperative” by former Superintendent of Prisons Dr Elliston Rahming, for every 270 citizens in the Bahamas, one is incarcerated.
In terms of the size of its prison population, the Bahamas ranks ninth in the world and number one in the Caribbean on a per capita basis. The country has some 435 persons behind bars per 100,000 population.
Mr Moss, who makes frequent visits to HMP, points out that this and the conditions at the prison not only have an affect on the incarcerated but also on the prison officers who work in those conditions.
“It dehumanises them, makes them feel like they are not only punished but being meted out cruel and inhumane punishment and that makes them more angry from what I have seen.”
While the relatively new remand centre has helped to alleviate the overcrowding, Mr Moss said the centre itself is overcrowded.
He said: “I believe it can be corrected if there is an holistic view of the prison system. Persons need to have access to resources that can allow them to redeem themselves and have some recompense. The only way for that to happen is to establish another prison outside of New Providence for sentenced men and permit HMP today to be the one for intake or remand.”
He said that many forget that a person who was once incarcerated will be out on the street again.
“Sometimes you would be lucky and see when a person has been released from the prison and unless they have the opportunity to work on the scheme they would not be given anything.
“Because we have failed to rehabilitate them in a way that would allow them to come back into society it goes back again and the same crimes or worse crimes are committed. Society suffers by being negligent in not permitting wholesale rehabilitation,” Mr Moss said.