Prison boss suspended after shock escape

The Prison and Correction Services Commissioner, Taitosaua Edward Winterstein, was suspended by Cabinet Tuesday afternoon, after the shocking escape of two of Samoa’s most notorious prisoners early Sunday morning. 

The Minister of Prisons and Corrections, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, confirmed the Commissioner's suspension in an interview with the Samoa Observer. 

“I can confirm that a [Cabinet Directive] was issued directing the suspension of the Commissioner pending an investigation,” said the Minister. 

The decision was made during Cabinet’s unscheduled meeting on Tuesday.

Efforts were made by this newspaper to get comments from the Commissioner, including messages left at the Tanumalala prison late afternoon. 

Lauititi Tualima and Aniseko Vaelei evaded security, broke free from their cells and overcame the prison's facilities with seeming ease. This is despite assurances the new $18 million Tanumalala prison would minimise the possibility of security breaches, after it was commissioned in June this year. 

The two men had broken out of jail before - one committed a violent rape while on the run in 2015 - and yet were placed together in the same cell. The Prisons and Correctional Office say they are investigating how they got to be housed in the same cell.

The Minister declined to comment when questioned which authority would lead that investigation. 

On Monday prison authorities provided a detailed account of how the prisoners managed to scale and possibly disassemble a three-metre high chain linked fence in the prison's interior, before potentially slipping through gaps in the barbed wire fence around the prison's perimeter, which remains substantially incomplete.  

At least one guard on duty was suspected of falling asleep while on duty. Another guard is facing charges relating to opening the cell door. 

Minister Tialavea on Monday said the prison was short-staffed on the night of the prison escape.  Only one officer was left to guard the cell blocks and one was left to conduct patrols every two hours. 

Typically two guards stand watch at the cell blocks and a total of 12 guards are meant to be on duty. But the failure of three guards to show up to work left them understaffed by three, the Minister confirmed.

According to the prison's records, the escape occured at around 1am Sunday. It was only detected about three hours later. 

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