A prison of notoriety into a school. What is M.E.S.C. thinking?

When the Government announced the opening of the new Tanumalala Prison in June last year, it also signaled the decommissioning of the Tafaigata Prison.

The Tafaigata Prison, located on the outskirts of the capital Apia, had been used to incarcerate prisoners for 67 years before its occupants were relocated to the new $25 million tala corrections facility at Tanumalala.

Samoa’s most notorious criminals including murderers and rapists were housed in this facility for over half a century. And the living conditions, in what was supposed to be a Government-funded and resourced corrections and rehabilitation centre, were not exactly five-star.

You just have to flick through the pages of the 2015/2016 Detention Centre Inspections Report, authored by the Office of the Ombudsman/National Human Rights Institution, to see what went on behind those prison walls. 

There was overcrowding among the prison’s 400-plus residents, substandard hygiene and sanitation standards, abuse of fellow prisoners, and even the death of an inmate in 2012. All in all, the harsh living conditions and the notoriety associated with Tafaigata made it a blot on the Government’s justice and corrections resume.

Public perception today of the abandoned prison is not one you want to associate with the voices of laughter, camaraderie and innocence – which our children bring into our lives on a daily basis – to inspire and give us a reason to give life our best shot.

Which is why the decision by the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture [M.E.S.C.] to convert the old Tafaigata Prison into a primary school – complete with the old jail’s building structure including windows with metal bars – lacks rational.

A story in the July 22, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer titled “From prison cells to classroom bells” gave details of the Ministry’s controversial project. The old prison will be turned into a Primary School and Early Childhood Education Centre with Term 3 classes scheduled to start at the new educational institution on 27 July after its official opening. 

According to the report, the new school’s classrooms were painted blue and red with the buildings still retaining the compound’s dark history, as metal bars on windows were visible for all the classrooms. 

Tafaigata will become the first primary school in Samoa to have barricaded classrooms enclosed by an eight foot long brick wall. 

It is obvious that the M.E.S.C. opted to overlook the history of the old prison to go ahead with the project, despite the danger of children who enroll for classes there being stigmatised, for their association with the place.

Did the Ministry run out of land to build a new school or couldn’t the old prison compound be demolished and new classrooms built in its place to represent a new beginning for an area associated with prisoners and crime for a long time?

Feedback from a Street Talk by the Samoa Observer in the July 23, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer showed all respondents disagreeing with the M.E.S.C. decision to turn the old jail into a school and calling for new classrooms to be built.

Surely, our children deserve better from a Government, which continues to promote inclusive education as a way forward for the country.

The children of Sogi families, whom the Government forced to leave Sogi early this year to relocate to Tafaigata, are likely to be some of the school’s pioneer students when it opens its doors next week.

And having gone through the traumatic experience of being forcefully evicted from their homes of some 130-years at Sogi, imagine getting your children to attend classes in a school that only last year harboured Samoa’s notorious criminals.

The decision by the Ministry to use the old prison infrastructure – without applying school construction guidelines in the “rebuilding process”, wherein risk factors such as fire and natural disasters are minimised to ensure the safety of children – smacks of recklessness. 

Imagine if there was a fire at the soon-to-be commissioned school premises? What do you think are the chances of the students breaking through the windows that are closed in by thick bars and surrounded by eight foot long brick walls?

We would be really surprised if the Planning and Urban Management Agency [P.U.M.A.], which regulates and maintains building standards in Samoa, signed off on this new "school project" from a child/student safety perspective. 

Nevertheless the M.E.S.C. is insulting the people’s intelligence by thinking that a rebranding exercise – with the repainting of the prison cells and placing of illustrations of education-themed art on the eight foot brick walls – will wash away the sordid history associated with the place and create an environment conducive for learning and academic excellence.

In these times of uncertainty, let’s give our children something that they can be truly proud of by demolishing the old prison to the last stone, and in its place building a new school that can represent a new beginning for everyone in the community.

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