By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
“Ask the Bahamian people,” pleaded the young man with his hair sectioned into four matted plaits, his voice cracking with urgency and barely audible as it travelled through the screened bars that serve as a barrier between maximum security inmates and the visiting public.
Although his personal story cannot be fully told until his court proceedings are complete, the story on his quality of life is shared by hundreds that live indefinitely at the facility on the junction of Fox Hill and Yamacraw roads.
“Ask is it fair for a man that has never been convicted, that is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, to spend 23 hours a day in a windowless cell?”
This was my second attempt at visiting the 22-year-old remand inmate, who has been in and out of the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services (nee Her Majesty’s Prison) since he was 16. The first time I was turned away because my name was not on the list, despite the fact that his girlfriend had made the necessary arrangements for our meeting the week prior.
It was the first palpable sense of an overarching power structure that pits the fate of inmates against the reactionary whims of correctional officers. Here, there are no judges, no lawyers, no adjudication. Once here, it matters little whether you have been sentenced for five years or still awaiting trial after two years.
“Ask,” the young man continued, reading from a page that appeared to have been torn from a composition notebook. Each line was filled with scrawling, cursive print that, while neat, was cramped on both sides. “Ask is it fair for inmates to be given food with little to no nutritional value, no fruits or vegetables, to sleep in a cramped cell with no ventilation, no light?”
The question of fairness is an overriding theme during our entire interview as the remand inmate described his day-to-day existence of degradation and squalour as an innocent-until-proven-guilty man condemned to the maximum security block.
He was eager to have his story told, and to be heard, convinced that once printed his words would be the tipping point for widespread reform. I couldn’t bear to tell him that the Bahamian people knew, had known for decades, and have been using the threat of similar circumstances as the primary deterrent for would-be criminals with limited success.
Last month, nearly two-thirds of the correctional officers scheduled to work called in sick for three consecutive days. Their longstanding protest over substandard working conditions included grave health and safety concerns over unsanitary practices due to overcrowding, and caught the ear of a regional committee dedicated to advancing the welfare of correctional officers. Caribbean Association of Corrections (CAC) warned that if conditions at the facility are not improved, the situation has the potential to “disrupt the smooth operations at the correctional facility”.
“We are still using buckets for the bathroom,” the inmate continued. “A few weeks ago, I kept fainting in my cell because I couldn’t breathe. Each time, they would take me to the prison doctor but he’d just give me some painkillers and send me back to my cell. I tried to tell him ‘look I can’t breathe in here’, but they don’t care about you.
“They won’t let ya’ll know but the prisoners on maximum went on strike too. We refused to eat for a few days. It was the guards that told us to do it; they said we had to do something to protest the conditions. The only thing I got out of it was a fan for my area.”
In 2010, composting toilets were installed in an attempt to move away from the unsanitary practice of removing human waste by bucket, or “slopping”. However, this initiative was unsuccessful.
In 2013, Prison Officers Association president Gregory Archer said that the growing amount of faecal matter that had accumulated on the ground in the maximum security section had reached almost ankle height, causing great concern for the health of inmates and staff at the facility.
For at least two years, the US State Department human rights report has condemned conditions at the facility as harsh and unsanitary, failing to meet international standards. The 2014 report has not yet been released, but it is doubtful there will be any change in assessment.
The Bahamas Prison Reform Commission appointed by the Christie Administration to undertake a strategic review of then-Her Majesty’s Prison revealed to the government mainly what was widely known for decades. There was no oversight at the severely overcrowded facility to ensure that inmates are treated humanely; to ensure that the institution is functioning properly and that established policies are being adhered to.
There was no effective and appropriate inmate classification system, and new inmates were routinely assigned to the prison’s maximum security block as a means of “breaking them in” before determining their housing placement.
Minister of National Security Dr Bernard Nottage has acknowledged that the maximum security block, since his appointment as minister, has never housed less than 800 inmates. It was built in 1953 to house 400.
The resulting Correctional Services Bill 2013 established a Correctional Services Review Board. It was proposed that the review board would visit and inspect the facility at least once every quarter, and among other things, investigate the abuse claims of inmates as an independent repository for inmate complaints.
It is unclear whether or not this board is functional, or has had any impact on conditions at the facility. It also introduced a work release scheme, and eliminated sexual discrimination against female prison officers.
On the walls above our heads in the visiting area were several aged murals depicting chipped and faded but skillful landscape scenes.
“I sleep in a cell with four other men - we call it a sardine can because we have to sleep laying side by side,” the inmate continued. “Because I’m on remand I can’t go to classes or use the library so I’m just in my cell for 23 hours a day; it’s really more than that because we are never given a full hour for recreation. The prison is too crowded so they have to rotate us so that everyone can get time outside.
“I’m depressed, I’m frustrated and some days I can barely breathe. They treat us like animals in here. I try to read the newspaper when I can, but because its so dark in my cell I can’t really read up on my case as much as I’d like to. I choose to exercise alone in a cage because I don’t want to get into trouble. If you get into a fight, everyone involved gets punished, whether you start the fight or not.”
According to the remand inmate. the maximum security block is split into two gangs: One Order and Madd Ass. Inmates are assigned based on their physical address, according to the remanded man, who said that persons are immediately linked to the gang members that they are housed with, and inherit their ongoing struggle for dominance.
This makes it even harder to stay out of trouble, and to shed the resulting stigma associated with incarceration. New inmates must make the critical decision to either form an alliance with a gang to discourage inevitable attacks, or go it alone and be targeted by both sides.
Once you are remanded for a crime - even more so if it is a serious crime against the person - there is always a relative behind bars waiting to mete out their own form of justice for your alleged offence.
The young man’s arguments are well reasoned and peppered with supporting facts obviously gleaned from his dated and narrow access to news media. At one point he interrupts himself to ask his girlfriend why his last package of newspapers was so outdated. Earlier, his girlfriend explained that she let the newspapers accumulate because guards only accepted items for prisoners once a week.
His girlfriend is his only saviour, according to the inmate, who calmly and confidently pronounced that he would kill himself if she abandoned him. It is a costly emotional burden that goes beyond visiting on Mondays and Wednesdays between 1pm and 3pm. She cooks him breakfast every morning, and provides all of his meals because he refuses to eat the prison food. The daily inmates’ menu consists of oatmeal or cream of wheat for breakfast, rice with corned beef, ground turkey or tuna for lunch, and a slice of bread for dinner.
The inmate explained that cellmates often purchased ramen noodles from the commissary despite the lack of hot water throughout the prison. This led to creative and hazardous methods of heating water to cook the instant meal. A popular method was to light hair grease and burn the noodle packaging, carefully rotating a plastic container over the open flame until the water got hot. Others ate the noodles raw like chips.
Inmates are not allowed to receive any form of fish as of February 15, according to the inmate’s girlfriend, who explained that the sudden, unexplained decision was especially perverse given that the correctional facility still allows inmates to purchase fish snacks from the institution on Saturdays.
“Why would you take fish out the prison?” she said. “They still sell them fish on Saturdays but Sunday (February 15) was the last day for family to bring fish.
“You can’t do tuna, mackerel, none of that stuff, crawfish, none of that. If I send shrimp and conch, they will take it. I could understand issues with the bone but tuna and mackerel don’t have bone. How can you be still selling us fish?”
In 2013, lawyer Paul Moss said: “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 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.
In a high crime environment, society offers its freedoms up to the whims of law enforcement in a blind demand to be rid of the omnipresent violent menace. There is little tolerance for the human rights of the condemned, or those awaiting such a fate, when faced with the horrors of victims. The physical and psychological welfare of our innocent-until-proven-guilty are not evaluated in the context of policing methods, or court statistics.
We demand Swift Justice behind a heavy and preferably sound-proof curtain. We paint the BDCS captives with the same brush that we do the inmates of another state-run institution, the Carmichael Road Detention Centre, where migrants are similarly forced to endure unsavoury conditions until they can prove their “innocence”, in this case present paperwork that validates their presence in the country.
And as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration struggles to balance the growing level of international reproach over the longstanding - yet recently infamous - conditions at the CRDC, the conditions at the BDCS create not just a breeding ground for career criminals but for another international human rights scandal.
The Bahamas is constantly engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign to maintain its hard-earned spot as the tourism mecca in the region - no expense spared. But the camera phone adds 15 pounds, and in 2015 we are running out of places to hide the fat.