By Malcolm Strachan
FORMER United States President Barrack Obama once said: “We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.” This begs a question to ask ourselves: While we can all agree that those who have become offenders ought to be removed from society, have we done a good enough job of creating a pathway after they’ve paid their debts to return as functioning members of the same?
If we are honest with ourselves, aside from a name change, the answer is no. With many referring to the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services (BDCS), formerly Her Majesty’s Prison, as a “crime school”, rather than a rehabilitative centre, the proof may very well lie in the proverbial pudding. Similarly, with the high rate of reoffending, certain consideration has to be given to our failures in prison reform.
While it may be natural for members of such a small society to want to see disrupters punished severely, punitive institutions only serve us by creating and regurgitating monsters back into our environment. No wonder many of us are afraid of crime when the perpetrators live so close.
Much of this discussion was highlighted late last year when Eyewitness journalist Clint Watson took us behind the gates for an expose of what really goes on inside the Bahamas Department of Correctional Services. With numbers more than doubling the capacity which the prison should hold and subhuman living conditions, any expectation of prisoners returning to a normal life among us can be futile.
Prisoners themselves caution against putting ourselves in situations that would lead us behind bars. Indications of it not being a place for human beings to live should not be taken lightly. And in fact, they haven’t been.
Last week, the US State Department, in its Human Rights Report, highlighted many areas The Bahamas needs to improve – among them the conditions of our prison. As a country still looking to get a handle on crime, consideration has to be given to what has seemingly become the biggest organised crime centre in the country – the very place we send criminals to be reformed and rehabilitated.
Obviously, something is not right about that picture. In Watson’s documentary, Sentenced to Suffer, one inmate calls the entire idea of the prison being a correctional facility “a farce”.
Perhaps even more concerning is that we don’t know from the government and minister of national security what their plan is as far as prison reform.
The first step in finding any solution is accepting there is a problem – and the nature of the problem. And with videos circulating throughout social media last year showing inmates being able to enjoy some luxuries such as cellphones and marijuana, it became quite obvious that is part of the problem too.i
After raids turned up large amounts of contraband and possible corruption, at least we can be satisfied there has been some level of acknowledgement the system s defective and a change in direction is necessary.
National Security Minister Marvin Dames did not hesitate to voice his frustration when he was interviewed: “I’m not surprised - from the time I was serving in the force this was one of the challenges we faced. That’s the challenges of corruption within our law enforcement agencies. While we continue to say the vast majority of our officers are decent, hardworking individuals unfortunately there is still a small element, as small as it may be, but it exists, and these are the challenges we face.
“I can tell you the times we had to go into the prison and execute raids on these cells and find everything from blunt instruments to drugs to cell phones. We know that these things exist and unfortunately they’re making their way into prisons with the assistance of prison staff who have no respect for the oath that they would have taken, and no respect for the vast majority of their colleagues who come to work on a daily basis and work hard to keep us all safe.”
“This is nothing new but I can assure you one thing,” Mr Dames said, “we’re working very hard as a government, we’re working very hard with leadership of these agencies to bring about a level of transformation that will make incidents like these go away."
Without a doubt, a transformation is needed, and we need a lot of help getting there.
Norway presents a perhaps aspirational but nonetheless great challenge for where we can be on this issue. With the lowest recidivism, or lowest rate of reoffenders in the world at an eye-poppingly low rate of 20 percent, Norway is obviously doing something right. The US - who slammed our prison system - has one of the highest with 76 percent of its prisoners reoffending within the first five years after being freed. To dive deeper on those figures – Norway’s incarceration rate is about 75 per 100,000 people while the US is around 707 per 100,000.
Prison Governor Arne Wilson, who is also a clinical psychologist at one of Norway’s prisons which have become notable for not having bars on the windows and allowing sharp objects in kitchen facilities, provides some interesting insight into what has made their system so successful: “In closed prisons, we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison, they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”
Realising this is not something we’ve done well, the government should be encouraged to learn from those who have had more success in this area. Even though we are in close proximity to the US, they have undoubtedly put more emphasis on punishing their prisoners than rehabilitating them. Oddly enough, a 2007 report produced by the US Department of Justice “found that strict incarceration actually increases offender recidivism, while facilities that incorporate cognitive-behavioural programmes rooted in social learning theory are the most effective at keeping ex-cons out of jail.”
The BDCS has been trying to move towards cognitive behavioural theory as a means of rehabilitating inmates, but to what degree they have been successful, it is hard to say. What we can say is that simply by looking at the numbers, tackling this issue will most certainly be a tall order for the new commissioner.
As we wait for the announcement of a new prison commissioner whose role will be to transform the BDCS into a correctional, rather than penal facility, Dames is still assuring the Bahamian people that a lot of work is taking place even though it may not necessarily be visible.
Dames affirmed there is much to do and noted government cannot make the same mistakes as in the past on prison reform. Obviously referring to the previous administration enacting their vision for the prison in law but without foundation – Dames seems to be urging citizens to trust the process.
We can only meet the government halfway on this. There is a tremendous challenge ahead and we hope the government is in the process of securing the right person for the job.