Questions and red flags about prison built by prisoners

By The Editorial Board 30 September 2020, 11:50PM

The construction of the Vaia’ata Prison in Savai’i, which is apparently being built by prisoners, raises so many questions. It begs the question of whether the Government should revisit the issue to consider whether proper processes were followed.

Aside from the fact the cost of the project is $600,000 above the threshold requiring approval by Cabinet and the Tenders Board, the idea that a prison is being built by prisoners sounds just as uncomfortable as the number of red flags it raises.

Questions must be asked about the wisdom behind the decision and how it was arrived at in the first place. And coming from a Government that loves to espouse principles such as transparency, accountability and good governance, many people will find this quite difficult to accept.

From what we know so far, the Minister of Police and Prisons, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, has rejected claims the contract has been awarded to a private company.

Contrary to claims by Members of Parliament, Olo Fiti Vaai and Faumuina Wayne Fong questioning the tender process, the Minister said the prison would instead be constructed by skilled inmates.

"There are inmates who have the appropriate skills and knowledge in building, but not a company," the Minister said. "That's why it wasn't tendered, because there are skilled and experienced inmates in the area of carpentry who are able to build it and train the others; now other inmates have the expertise [...] too."

Now this is interesting, isn’t it? Is there a new trades school being established in prison? And what are they going to train other prisoners to do? Build or commit more crime? Who assesses the quality of the work? Have they not heard of the story behind Prison Break? Is that what we are doing at Vaia’ata?

But this gets more interesting. The Minister went on to say that the prisoners are not receiving wages in return. "That's the money that goes into their food and all, there are no wages or anything,” the Minister said.

Well isn’t that slavery? For that kind of skilled work, shouldn’t workers still be paid? And how much is being spent on food? How do we know what is spent on food and whatever else?

As for the design, Ti'alavea said the “blueprint” of the project was taken from the $25millin Tanumalala Prison. The mere mention of that Tanumalala Prison brings back interesting memories. To the Minister’s credit though, at least we have been assured that what happened at Tafa’igata will not be repeated.

Earlier this week, the Owner of Schwartz Construction Ltd. and the Minister’s brother, Alai'asa Schwartz Hunt, confirmed that his company is not involved with the Vaia'ata Savai'i Prisons project.  Alai'asa was responding to an allegation by Olo Fiti Vaa made in a video clip "virally circulated" by E.F.K.S. TV.

"The video clip alleges that my company is involved in some sort of collusion regarding the Construction of the Vaiaata Prison to the value of $800,000 and that such a project wasn't tendered in accordance with government policies and that skilled Prisoners are being used under our company supervision," Alai'asa said.  "The allegations by both Olo Fiti and Faumuina published on the E.F.K.S. TV2 station are false and fabricated. It is defamatory, libelous and scandalous and it has tarnished our company's reputation causing much distress."

And because of that, the businessman said he is exploring his options.

"I am very concerned that these fabricated lies is misleading the public especially those using social media. So it's important to me that I clear the name of my company from these false accusations," he said.

Well Alai’asa has got a point and we agree with him about the need for Members of Parliament to be careful in terms of allegations they throw around. The good thing is that he has come forward publically to set the record straight and to wash his hands clean of any involvement in it. It is a step in the right direction.

But now that is out of the way, questions still remain about how such a significant project is going to be built by prisoners and what ramifications that will have in terms of the future? Even more intriguing is how the blueprint of a $25million prison will be used to build an $800,000 project? Is this even remotely possible? And who will be responsible in terms of other building and construction criteria all other companies are required to satisfy? What about questions of insurance in case something happens to the building? What about occupational health and safety issues in relation to prisoners?

We are not experts in construction work but so many things about this project just don’t make sense at all, judging from the details revealed so far. Stay tuned!





By The Editorial Board 30 September 2020, 11:50PM

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