Independent investigation overdue into prison breakouts

On Monday, the country woke up to the news that another two men – who are facing charges of burglary and theft and are awaiting trial – dashed for freedom from Tafa'igata Prison on the fringes of Apia. 

Seventeen-year-old Palemata Eteuati from Leauva’a and Manunu, and 18-year-old Silao Leleiga of Nofoali’i, Saanapu and Salailua Savai’i, have been on the run since Monday morning.

As is always the case, the daring escape made the pages of the Samoa Observer, with the newspaper reporting that the two teenagers were among seven prisoners who attempted to escape from the prison on Monday morning. In fact, reports reaching this newspaper suggest that a prison officer was injured in the melee, as he was pushed and knocked down during the getaway.  

The duo now join convicted criminal Pati Chong Nee, who has been on the run since January 20 this year, and must now be setting a record of some sort with the long spell he is having outside the prison walls. Chong Nee has now managed to evade local authorities for three months and 10 days. 

But whose responsibility is it to ensure that all prisoners – including those on remand and awaiting trial – are locked up and kept behind bars for the safety of the public? If it is the Ministry of Prison and Correction Services then why wasn't the first prison break in January 20 this year investigated and the systemic failures addressed and resolved to ensure it didn't happen again?

We ask these questions because this is the second prison breakout in four months and someone has to be held accountable for the failure in the systems that are currently in place at the prison facility. Monday’s prison break confirms to members of the public that there is a systemic failure at the Tafaigata Prison, which warrants the immediate attention of the Ministry of Prison and Correction Services.

The Minister of Prison and Correction Services, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, made a public apology in March for this year’s first prison break – when Chong Nee and Aniseko Vaelei dashed for freedom. 

The two prisoners terrorised the community weeks after their escape, robbing shops at Moamoa and Vailoa and targeting the family of a university lecturer in a home invasion. Vaelei was later recaptured by the Police with $10,000 cash. 

“I offer my sincere apologies to the families who were affected one way or another at the hands of the escaped inmates. Those problems will be solved once the prisoners are moved to the new prison in Tanumalala,” Tialavea said. 

We welcome the Minister and the Government’s announcement of the opening of the Tanumalala Prison in June this year, and note the Minister’s expression of confidence that the prison-break issue will be resolved after the inmates are relocated to Samoa’s new jail.

But 6-8 weeks away from the inmates’ relocation to Tanumalala, prisoners continue to walk out of the country’s leading correctional facility at will and at their convenience. The escape of four prisoners in four months at Tafaigata this year equates to one prisoner per month, who opts for sunshine and freedom outside the prison walls and at their leisure.

With the latest breakout Monday morning, you have to wonder if the Minister will make another public apology. Regardless of whether there is another public apology or not from Tialavea, the public can only hope there are no more prison breakouts over the next 6-8 weeks.

But then again, what is hope if there are systemic failures within the Ministry of Prison and Correction Services, which are yet to be identified and addressed? Would the Ministry’s failure to address these shortcomings make the Tanumalala Prison vulnerable to future jail breakouts? 

The escape of four prisoners in four months is one too many and warrants an independent investigation. The investigation’s term of reference (T.O.R.) would cover the first breakout this year on Sunday, January 20 and the second one Monday, April 29. The TOR would focus on security staffing numbers on those particular days; which correctional service officers were on duty at those material times; if the prisoners had any contact with visiting family and friends prior to their escape; and if there were incidents within their cells in the lead-up to their getaway.

Samoa’s law abiding citizens want an assurance from the Ministry of Prison and Correction Services that there are no inherent systemic problems, which could be carried over to Tanumalala if not resolved. 

Therefore, conducting an independent investigation into its systems and processes at Tafaigata is one way of restoring public confidence in Samoa’s justice system, which many have accused of not been tough enough on those who choose a life of crime, at the expense of the country’s law abiding population.

Have a wonderful Wednesday Samoa and God bless.

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