The case of yet another life interrupted by a horrific and prolonged stay at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre punctuated by beatings and abuse without formal charges ever being filed against the detainee makes for grim reading.
Until there is a final judgement and opportunity passes for appeal, the responsible press can only report what is revealed in legal proceedings. But we do not have to wait for a book or movie on the life of a man who will never be able to get back the six and a half years he spent in what has been described repeatedly as a hellhole of inhumanity to man, to call for an end to the abuse of detainees and demand an immediate overhaul of Carmichael Road Detention Centre management.
That means holding the Department of Immigration accountable. It means starting with reviewing the process by which detainees are picked up. It means facing issues of abuse, overcrowding, filthy conditions and treatment that should shake all of us to our core. Under the current regime, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force is tasked with maintaining the perimeter. All other responsibilities fall to the Department of Immigration and regardless of how much Immigration may wish to point the finger elsewhere, the proverbial buck stops with the Director and the people he assigns to duty. There must also be a process by which files are reviewed on a timely basis so that no one ever again experiences the unnecessary deprivation of freedom that the current case is based on, once again highlighting a system totally overwhelmed and undermanaged.
In the present case, Douglas Ngumi, a man from Kenya who entered The Bahamas lawfully, was granted a work permit, married a Bahamian citizen and was awaiting a spousal permit was arrested for overstaying and hauled off to the detention centre on Carmichael Road where he spent the next six years. His description of life inside of what is supposed to be a holding facility is blood-curdling. Abuse. Filthy bathrooms. Toilets that never flushed. Beatings. He reports being handcuffed, shoved under a table and tied to it while being beaten with PVC pipes so severely that “people had to wipe puss out of my back” with tissues for days afterward. At one point, one Immigration officer had to threaten another that if he didn’t stop the beating, he would call the police on him.
In the courtroom before Supreme Court Justice Indri Charles, the memories were so fresh, so haunting and disturbing that a year after his release Mr. Ngumi broke down. Choking back tears, he tried to compose himself and continue testifying, describing conditions that he said led to his suffering from pink eye, a “scratching disease” and tuberculosis, eventually spending six months in Princess Margaret Hospital.
The real tragedy is not just that Mr. Ngumi suffered, although what he endured should never have happened. The real tragedy is the Carmichael Road Detention Centre has been at the centre of one horror story after another for more than two decades and very little, other than an apparent slight improvement in food quality, has changed.
Human rights inspectors and detainees alike have all reported conditions that are inhumane.
As long ago as 2009, after a Cuban American Human Rights organization called the detention centre a “concentration camp,” Nassau Institute’s Rick Lowe, a respected thinker and blogger, penned these words: “It’s bad enough that our prison is reported to be a hellhole but for a detention centre where people are housed while awaiting deportation to be compared to a Nazi concentration camp should embarrass every church and political leader throughout our archipelago.”
Five years later in 2014, 13 Cuban nationals were hauled off to Her Majesty’s Prison after reportedly becoming disorderly and attempting to burn down the detention centre. Their protests made international news.
In 2018, a pregnant woman still in her first trimester, was arrested and held for 16 days though she had done nothing illegal. Though it was cold outside and she complained of freezing, she was forced to sleep on a mattress without top sheet. She had no underwear for four days and was treated, she said, like a common criminal. She cried day and night, suffered terrible bouts of morning sickness, was not allowed to contact her husband, Tristan Rolle, and lived in fear of retribution because she managed to contact a lawyer. Like others who have won cases against the government for false imprisonment, the mum-to-be was caught up in an island-wide manhunt for potential immigration violators.
Individuals who are carted off to the detention centre, a facility conveniently out of sight and out of mind except when an atrocity occurs, have not been convicted of a crime. Many say they are ordered to present their documents as part of a random crackdown on illegals, some saying they showed documents reflecting legal status but were loaded aboard a bus anyway. Opportunity for corruption is obvious. Who would not give all the money they have to keep their freedom?
Change must occur. A proper process for timely review must be instituted. Immigration officers must be outfitted with body cameras both on raids and in the detention centre. To avoid the stigma of being assigned to the detention centre and taking anger or resentment out on detainees, Immigration officers must be rotated regularly, making the assignment short-term. Human rights and ethics training must be required prior to taking up the detention centre duty and a record of success at the assignment can be a step on the ladder of promotion. There are a hundred ways to improve the management of the Carmichael Road Detention Centre but conditions and operations cannot be allowed to continue as is. The faster The Bahamas officially recognises the danger and acknowledges the problems, the faster officials in partnership with civil society can get to work to correct the inherent flaws and end the abuse and restore justice and dignity befitting a country with such nationalistic pride as The Bahamas claims.