Corrections issues deeper than Commissioner

We applaud the Commissioner of Samoa Prisons and Correction Services for tendering his resignation.

In the wake of Monday night’s massive prison break, Taitosaua Edward Winterstein’s resignation was the right and honourable thing to do. And it was an all too rare instance of the once commonplace principle of someone in public life taking responsibility for failings that happened under their watch. 

But the Commissioner’s departure must not be used as a reason to quiet the many questions about how Monday’s mass escape happened. Failure of the correctional system of the scale we witnessed on Monday is not attributable to one person; it is a systemic failure. 

Indeed, the holes in Samoa’s ability to house its prisoners date back decades and suggest that the Government has failed in its duty to keep the citizenry safe and the most dangerous among us behind bars. 

These failings have continued despite the investment by the Government of more than $18 million in a new supposedly state of the art prison at Tanumalala that has been the site of two escapes in less than six months. 

The overturning of the 2013 Prisons and Corrections Act, transferring responsibility for overseeing the nation’s prisons back to Police is a good place to start addressing some of the issues that led to Monday night’s escape.

But it would be wrong to view this step as a cure all. 

It must be remembered, after all, that the issue of prison breakouts existed before the Police had the power to oversee the prisons system taken from them. 

The failures on display on Monday night are the product of this long history; they extend well beyond the Commissioner. 

And they implicate several other layers and persons in Government who will now also need to step forward and be held accountable for their own roles in Monday night’s incident. 

Let us not forget that it was a mere 45 days ago that Taitosaua’s tenure was reinstated by the Cabinet following an earlier prison break in October. 

Taitosaua was suspended for five months while two separate investigations, including one by the Ombudsman, were conducted into the prison’s management. 

We were assured in February by the Minister of Prisons, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, that new “anti-climb” fences had been installed at the prison to make it entirely secure. Breakouts, the Minister said, were a thing of the past.

For dozens of prisoners to escape just weeks after their conclusion, it must be asked what, if anything, was achieved by the Government’s review process. 

The reviews followed an October prison break, the first to puncture a hole in the idea that the expensive new Tanumalala prison was impenetrable; the events might have been funny were they not so serious. 

At least one guard was asleep.

Another facilitated the escape by opening the call for prisoners who escaped through either a hole in a fence, or by managing to disassemble it themselves. 

Two prisoners simply slipped through a fence. Due to a shortage of staff their escape was not discovered until hours later. 

If there is one obvious lesson in the events of Monday night it is that a piece of infrastructure is as only as good as those who staff it. The size, expense and technological grandiosity of a building are utterly meaningless if it is inadequately staffed or improperly run.

All the time spent inquiring into the causes of October’s escape appears to have largely laid the blame for the actions at the feet of a rogue guard who, for reasons unknown, chose to unlock the cell. 

But all these investigations into the prison’s management appear to have failed to identify what now seem like glaring holes in the prison’s operation. 

There are many unanswered questions about Monday night’s escape. 

But perhaps the most glaring of all is why the Government seems unable to learn from its mistakes. 

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