Ombudsman inspects Tafa’igata Prison
Office of Ombudsman/National Human Rights Institution releases Detention Centre Inspections Report into Tafaigata Prison
The Office of the Ombudsman/NHRI has released its second inspection report following inspections that were carried out on the 12th, 19th, 20th and 25th of November 2015 at Tafaigata Prison. The inspection follows on from the initial report in February 2015. The second report looks into Tafaigata Prison only with the main focus to (i) follow up on issues from the last Inspections Report and (ii) to look into the issue of escaped prisoners. These inspections are undertaken pursuant to its mandate under the Ombudsman Act 2013.
According to Ombudsman Maiava Iulai Toma “the functions and powers bestowed on this office by law to carry out these inspections are crucial because it facilitates discovery and to report the conditions within places of detention in Samoa and the extent they measure up to the standards that Samoa is obligated by international instruments and standards to observe”. He further adds that “These inspections further motivate the push for Government to draw their attention to these issues raised”.
The report commends the SPCS for all the work that they have done thus far to move the prisons forward despite the lack of financial and human resources. The SPCS is barely managing to ensure security within the prisons due to shortage in staff.
Despite this shortage in staff, the prisoners and officers share a special connection through the “matai system” which continues to be proven an effective system in assisting SPCS on various levels. The Office of the Ombudsman strongly believes that this system has greatly assisted in maintaining relationships within the prison and without it; outcomes including escapes would be a lot worse than they have been.
The SPCS have been properly innovative in dealing with situations that were beyond the capacity of their resources to handle. They have been fortunate to have on board the temporary assistance of the Ministry of Police (the “MoP”) and New Zealand Corrections Department to aid them through the initial separation and implementing many changes since then.
FOLLOW UP FROM THE LAST REPORT:
The SPCS since the last Inspections Report have worked hard to address some of the issues raised in the last inspections report. Many of the positive progress include the allocation of a bigger and separate building for the medical care and arrangements with NHS to provide medical services 3 times a week. Despite these improvements, inspections carried out illustrates that more work still needs to be done to improve services and conditions of Tafaigata Prison in order to be compliant with recognized standards of places of detention and treatment of prisoners.
However, it should be noted with regard to some of the issues highlighted in the Report that the SPCS is working on building a new prison facility which will hopefully solve the problems currently in evidence. The building of the new facility is currently slow in progress.
Many of the issues regarding the conditions of accommodations remain the same since the last inspections. Such are issues with hygiene in cells which prisons are kept in: cells are still dirty and malodorous, toilets and showers are broken down and the kitchen is dirty with the ceiling about to collapse. More alarming is the issue of infestation in areas where food are prepared and also within the cells. It was noticed by the Inspections Team that there was still heavy infestation of rats and cockroaches.
Substandard hygiene in the prison is of real concern because of its potential impact on the health and well being of the whole prison population. The quality and quantity of prison food remain major issues as noted in the initial report. Complaints and expressed curiosity from prisoners with reference to the proceeds from plantations and gardens was again raised during the inspections. There is still inadequate access to regular clean water for drinking and showering.
The issue of overcrowding still remains with the numbers of prisoners continues to increase which is an alarming concern. The classification system is yet to be implemented despite classification procedure included within the Prisons and Corrections Regulation. This contributes to many of the issues evident during the inspections which includes the issue of young prisoners and young persons in custodies (awaiting court hearing) who are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty are being kept in cells in the same state similar to those that is used to keep prisoners.
The cells are not fit to house prisoners and it is very wrong to routinely detain persons who have yet to be tried in these conditions. According to SPCS, it is difficult at the moment to implement the classification system because there are no proper facilities and there is a distinct lack of recourses.
Unless the new prison is established this issue will continue to exist. The SPCS is working on ways to help temporarily resolve this issue. The SPCS is looking to work with churches to release in their care prisoners that are nearing the end of serving their sentences to complete serving their sentence with them. The SPCS believes that this will also assist with rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into society.
CURRENT ISSUES RAISED IN THE LATEST INSPECTION:
There were many issues raised by the female inmates regarding the operation of the women’s prison. There was allegation of favoritism and gangs amongst the officers and some of the prisoners. There was also an allegation of female officers using excessive force on one of the prisoners. This matter is currently being investigated by SPCS. There was also an incident whereby a female (Ms B) was detained in the men’s punishment cell for a couple of hours. According to SPCS, the decision was appropriate at the time because Ms B was out of control, cussing and screaming causing tension amongst the other prisoners.
Limitation of Visitation
Prisoners raised concerns that children were no longer allowed to visit during visiting hours. According to the SPCS, the reason why children are no longer allowed to visit is because children are unattended to by family members. The children then wonder around and end up chatting with the prisoners or running around on the compound unsupervised.
It was decided therefore that children would not be allowed to come to the prison as Prison authorities cannot assure their safety. Also, the SPCS introduced a new rule where all visitors are to park their cars at the front gate and walk to the back of the Prison. This is quite burdensome for elderly visitors because they are not able to walk to the back, which has the effect of discouraging them from visiting the prisoners. According to SPCS, this has been in place to stop families from bringing food for SPCS. There are circumstances where they allow vehicles in the premises if necessary.
Freedom to Sing
The Prison choir “Ola Toe Fuataina Choir” has a great reputation within Samoa. The choir is invited to participate in almost all public activities, including recently at the 13 Days of Christmas event at Vaitele. However, some prisoners raised legitimate concerns about not wanting to participate in such events.
This is because they are concerned about having to go on TV and have their picture taken in the news paper. Many prisoners believe that the exposure affects their reputation within their family and their village as a result of the stigma that comes with being a convicted felon. Further, prisoners have voiced their concerns about being able to reintegrate into society after their release, especially with regards to finding employment.
They believe that if they are singing regularly on TV as part of the Prision Choir, then this stigma will be forever attached to their name and they will find it hard to reintegrate back into society. However, according to SPCS, the choir is on a voluntary basis. The choice is with the prisoner whether or not they want to perform in public. They are not forced to sing, but rather, it is up to each individual prisoner whether or not they want to sing and participate in the choir. The numbers of members have been reduced down to a manageable level for security, safety and transportation reasons.
The prisoners expressed concern about changes to the weekend parole. The SPCS policy used to be that once a prisoner has served 3 months of their sentence he/she would be entitled to weekend parole. This was later extended to 6 months.
Since the increase in escapes the SPCS changed this policy to half the sentence before a prisoner is entitled to weekend parole. The prisoners were uneasy with this change especially those with longer sentences because it meant serving 5 or 10 years (for some) before they are entitled to weekend parole. According to SPCS, the 3 months policy that was exercised before was not a recognized policy. The half sentence policy now imposed was in fact the policy approved by Cabinet and the one that should be complied with.
It would appear however that SPCS says one thing and does another. Since the inspections and consultation with SPCS reflected in this report, 3 prisoners (each serving a 15 years sentence) were released on weekend parole after barely completing one year in prison.
The SPCS reported in the newspaper that the 3 prisoners were released on weekend parole as a reward for their hard work and good conduct in the prison choir that sang at the dissolution of Parliament ceremony.
According to SPCS, the decision was based on good behavior- “If they have displayed good behavior then there is no need to wait till they have served half of their sentence”. The SPCS believes that this mechanism helps with the rehabilitation of the prisoners, that “it is a good opportunity to spend time with families who will give them good advice and will help them rebuild their lives”. The case reported in the newspaper involved 3 prisoners found guilty of a gang rape, a crime of unimaginable horror for the victim and for which very heavy penalty was rightly handed down.
It should be noted that a number of the incidents which have occurred over the past 12 months have been of a sexual nature, perpetrated by prisoners with known histories of such behavior. Such individuals with serious convictions that just started their sentences should be watched closely by the prisons. The SPCS should review its weekend parole policy to ensure that such policy does not allow for exceptions to the policy which poses a foreseeable threat to the public.
Frequent Escape of Prisoners
There have been numerous reports in the media about prisoners escaping from Tafaigata prison. The escapes generated greater than usual public concern perhaps because of serious crimes alleged to have been committed by the escapees including the alleged rape of an Australian tourist honeymooning in Samoa with her husband. Such instances obviously shocked and angered the community as did cases of prisoners released on weekend paroles and ending up offending. There have been calls by prominent members of the community to bring back corporal punishment.
The Inspections Team whilst carrying out its normal inspections took the opportunity to look into this issue. The Team interviewed 4 matais, 4 escaped prisoners (regular escapees), as well as officers and management of SPCS. Explanations or reasons for escapes advanced in these interviews are as follows:
• Lack of SPCS staff – prisoners know they can overpower the limited staff or escape unnoticed;
• Prisoners are no longer entitled to weekend parole. They miss their families and want to see them;
• Prisoners return back to their families to get clothes and other necessities;
• The SPCS are not responding to their requests for weekend parole;
• Prisoners escape to set up an officer and have him/her get fired;
• Change in the weekend parole;
• Prisoners are impatient and can’t wait to be released;
• Prisoners are not worried about the consequences of escapes. Unlike before, they do not have to reckon with the displeasure of other prisoners when they return or be locked up in a certain punishment cell that no one wanted to be detained in due to its harsh conditions. This particular cell has been shut down and is no longer used.
So what has the PCS done about the increased escapes from prison in recent months?
The SPCS have carried out internal assessments and reported working together with the matais on ways to stop the escapes. The SPCS and matais have established a system whereby a recaptured prisoner is taken directly to sit in front of a Council of matais (all the matais of each cell). The matais counsel him/her before he/she is referred to the punishment cell.
Some prisoners reported to the Inspections Team that the system has now changed so much that prisoners are no longer afraid to escape. Before, prisoners used to be afraid of escaping because they knew that on return they could be physically punished by other prisoners for jeopardizing the latter’s own entitlements. The SPCS have made it clear to prisoners and officers that such acts are not allowed under the law and everyone should refrain from doing this.
It was impressed upon the Inspections Team that the shortages in staff and the lack of a proper security fence continue to be contributing factors to prison problems. As stated elsewhere in this report, the current staff capacity is insufficient to secure and manage the large number of prisoners.
This is especially the case when prisoners work in the plantations. Some prisoners escape during this time. The current fencing is an old traditional pile of loose stones surrounding the premise, which is about than 50 acres.
There is no tower or high viewing point from which officers can monitor the movement of prisoners. The prison facilities are surrounded by coconut plantation, taro and banana plantations and bush. This makes it easy for the prisoners to escape and hard for the officers to notice any escape.
The Office of the Ombudsman believes that a single escape from prison is one escape too many, especially when horrible acts are perpetrated on innocent victims in society. Some shocking incidents have recently occurred which understandably frighten people into calling for our prisons in their entirety to be made escape free as a matter of urgency. Recent prison escapes do not however by any means indicate a breakdown in SPCS’s ability to contain prisoners within the confines of the prisons.
The realities and dynamics within the prisons fortunately show the problem in fact to involve and revolves around a small, often easily identifiable minority of prison inmates at any particular time. What appears to the Office to be needed are proper measures and treatment to be focused on these risks laden individuals.
All said and done, it is indisputable that given the lack of security fencing, grave shortcomings in staffing and as a consequence in supervision and surveillance at different junctures of the 24 hour prison day, it is easy for any prisoner who sets his mind to it, to walk out of Tafaigata should he choose to do so.
It is a fact on the other hand that except for a very small minority Samoan prisoners do not usually entertain the idea of escaping from custody. This is an enviable circumstance that Samoa and its prison system presumably would want to preserve.
The Samoan prison establishment has evolved over the years’ modus operandi in prison detention that has been effective in maintaining order and minimizing escapes. Significant reliance has been on elements of Faasamoa group dynamics and the use of punishment cells to achieve compliance and order in the prisons.
The 2014 Commission of Inquiry Report into Tafaigata Prison had this to say:
“The Prison Service with all its faults as identified in this report and despite evident neglect in important areas has been quite successful in achieving the limited objective of containing incarcerated persons away from the general population.
All three prisons and particularly Vaia’ata and Olomanu prisons provide clear proof that with competent leadership and quality staff a largely open type prison system which harnesses the social dynamics of traditional communal existence can work in Samoa. Very importantly, the functional reality of the “nu’u” dissipates tendency for potentially destructive “us versus them” mentality to emerge and develop in Samoan prisons.
There is however no way of avoiding the harsh ‘lock up’ option for a very small percentage of the incarcerated population who do not assimilate.
Prisoners are housed in group dormitory cells and in recently built dormitory Samoan fales. The dormitory cells but not the open fales are locked at night. During the day inmates under very minimal supervision are engaged on assigned work tasks and other activities. Nine (9) very grim dark cells are used to hold inmates under punishment for short periods. The two extremes in cell facility types at Tafaigata are far apart with nothing in between.
There appears clear need for appropriate cells to house prisoners with shown propensity or reasonably suspected intent to escape from incarceration. The 2014 Commission of Inquiry was given to understand that it was not really difficult for the prison authorities to identify people who fall into this category.
Young people who have become “addicted” housebreakers were reported to the Commission of Inquiry to be high possibilities. It would seem prudent to regard these inmates apart from the general prison population as prisoners requiring constant vigilance in supervision and lock up. Of necessity minimal surveillance that is routinely in operation with regard to the prison population as a whole would not apply to them.
As observed by the Commission of Inquiry, the visible ever available ‘lock up’ alternative, to the normal dormitory accommodation and associated relative freedom, while a necessity for a few hard cases can serve as effective deterrent for the rest.
There is urgent need for a block of appropriate cells to house individuals who are seen, for security or other special reasons, to require greater surveillance and stricter confinement in cell accommodation different from those provided for the general prison population. The need for a new category of cell accommodation and tailored surveillance for specially singled out inmates has been highlighted by recent escape incidents and the case of the 16 year old prisoner Mr X discussed earlier in this report
According to Maiava Iulai Toma, Ombudsan, “The issues raised in our inspections report shows that Samoa Prisons and Correction Services (SPCS) Management can only do so much with the resources they have. Such, there needs to be more financial and human recourses allocated to the SPCS in order for SPCS to effectively operate and secure the prison. While the Office of the Ombudsman understands Government’s focus to be on the building of the new prison facility, it must not in effect be tantamount to total disregard of the current prison and its pressing problems.
There is urgent need for a block of appropriate cells to house individuals who are seen, for security or other special reasons, to require greater surveillance and stricter confinement in cell accommodation different from those provided for the general prison population” He further adds “the authorities have long relied heavily on the matai system within the prison to maintain order and security.
The SPCS needs to be given more resources so that they, in conjunction with the matai system can work to ensure Tafaigata prison retains and builds on its unique way of effective inmate management which if allowed to degenerate away would need to be replaced by new, possibly very difficult to set up and very expensive, strategies of prisoner management and containment”
The full Detention Centre Inspections Report – Tafaigata Prison with recommendations can be downloaded in full on the Office website www.ombudsman.gov.ws or a hardcopy can be collected from the Office of the Obudsman/NHRI, Level 5, and Central Bank Building.