Prison's condition a sorry reflection on its purpose

We build prisons in the hope that we will have less use for them in the future. 

Punishing people by depriving them of their liberty has five purposes: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution.

Let us not lose sight of the principle of rehabilitation, one entirely within our control and determined by the way we treat prisoners. This is not just a measure of our Christian compassion but the effectiveness of the criminal justice system as a whole. 

But a story about the treatment of child inmates at the Tanumalala Prison carried on the front page of the Sunday edition of this newspaper suggests this Government has entirely lost sight of that purpose (“Juveniles like ‘caged animals’”.)

Before we turn to its moral implications, the story raises several practical questions.

The first is the awfulness of conditions relative to the cost and newness of the facilities. 

The Government has quoted inconsistent estimates about the exact cost of constructing the new prison, ranging from $18 million to $25 million. 

Presumably, the differences depend upon whether extraneous parts of the structure such as access roads and administrative buildings. 

Famously, the operation to transfer prisoners over from the Tafa’igata prison alone ran at a cost of $100,000 (most of which was spent on, we were told, communications equipment in the form of walkie talkies). 

But this latest in a stream of scandals is proof positive that, at whatever the price, this new prison has been a disaster.

Sunday’s story suggests the prison is failing in its purpose to rehabilitate those within its walls. 

But as March’s mass breakout made clear the prison was not able to fulfill another of its purposes: to keep society safe from offenders.

Some 29 prisoners escaped from the Prison’s walls after they attacked guards, ransacked the office, and broke free. 

The Government made some instant changes to the prison’s governance and staffing in response.

Commissioner Taitosauā Edward Winterstein nobly took responsibility for these failings by falling on his sword. Other staffing changes were made.

The combined effect of these announcements and changes was to give the impression that a multi-million dollar problem was being set on a new path and being fixed. 

The Police took charge of the Prison’s management. A senior official from the former department of correctional services was fired.

“I am inheriting the prison and there are many problems and therefore, I will make the changes that see fit and lawfully,” said the Commissioner of the newly merged Prison and Police Services, Fuiavaili’ili Egon Keil.

We acknowledge that the Commissioner has inherited more than his share of issues at a facility that has, at times, appeared to be a disaster.

And he has, indeed, overseen some substantive reforms. 

Last month a high-security anti-climb fence around the prison’s perimeter was finally completed, one year after the prison was opened. 

It raises the question of whether or not the construction of a fence capable of preventing escape should have been a precondition of opening a prison in the first place.

But Sunday’s story, based, as it was, on the testimony of the former Supreme Court Justice Vui Clarence Nelson raises some even deeper issues about this prison.

Juvenile prisoners are often making their first contact with the criminal justice system. 

They are at a particularly impressionable stage of their lives.

The effect of being incarcerated can have differing effects on such young people who are deprived of their liberties.

One is to expose them to the most inveterate members of society’s criminal classes and act as a quasi-university for criminality, compounding any fledgling criminal instinct they may have.

Another is to entrench feelings of resentment.

Many juvenile criminals are acting out of a feeling that they have no place in society, feelings that are compounded by the numerous studies that have shown that poor family backgrounds such as fatherlessness correlate very strongly with criminal offending.

Let us be clear, we do not make an argument here for excusing these offenders for their crimes because of the possibility that they may have been exposed to challenges in their youth.

On the contrary, we believe those who have committed crimes must pay their price by serving out their punishments according to the law. 

Instead, we make what we believe is a simple argument that should be articulated without any fear of contradiction: that the young men who enter a prison ought to leave it less, not more likely to commit further crimes.

But the catalogue of deprivations these young prisoners are exposed to makes for chilling reading, especially when the price of the facility and the recency of its opening are accounted for. 

“We were horrified to note the conditions in which children are now being kept following a recent Police decision to turn the Olomanu Rehab Facility at Mulifanua into a Prison farm manned by adult prisoners,” Justice Vui said in a letter to the entirety of Samoa’s judiciary. 

“I believe this decision has the blessing of the Minister of Police and possibly the Cabinet. 

“Your Honours, these children are kept in heavily barred cells and sleep on the concrete floor without falas or even a blanket which at this time of year at that altitude is criminal. 

We saw one sheet being shared by a cell of 6 boys, wet washing dripping onto their floor as there is nowhere else to hang it because they are not allowed out of their cells at any time.”

Justice Vui felt it necessary to ensure the dignity of basic hygiene material, at least, was afforded the young prisoners.

That was because, he wrote, the juveniles “looked like caged animals which are about what they are at present”. 

We should ask ourselves, what is the likelihood that a young criminal who enters prison and receives such conditions is likely to leave with a greater feeling of loyalty to society, its rules, and its customs, such as respect.

Or are we instead willing parties to a system that will leave an entire generation of criminals unrehabilitated?

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