Cabinet intervention in Prison Project leaves bad stench

The Vaia’ata Prison in Savai'i has been making headlines since revelations last month that it will be extended in a $800,000 project and the construction will be led and done entirely by inmates.

The project has become a public relations disaster for the Government, following the admission by the Minister of Police and Prisons that work at the building site began early last year, without the Planning and Urban Management Agency [P.U.M.A.] issuing a development consent as part of its certification process.

Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, as the Minister with oversight over prisons, told the Samoa Observer on 7 October 2020 that he did not think it was illegal for the prison construction work to start without a permit.

“I made the call for the project to proceed without a permit," he said in an interview.

Prior to this newspaper’s 7 October 2020 interview with Tialavea, the Minister of Works Transport and Infrastructure, Papali’i Niko Lee Hang, confirmed that his Ministry stepped in to stop the work at Vaia’ata Prison due to the absence of a permit.

Three days later on 10 October 2020 the Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Tenders Board, Sili Epa Tuioti, told the Samoa Observer that the Vaia’ata Prison Project will be put on tender and the plan to use prisoners to build the extension will be scrapped.

“It should have been tendered in the first place,” Sili said.  “The [project] will be available for tender as soon as possible.”

But 10 days after the announcement by Minister Sili, Tialavea revealed on 20 October 2020 that the Cabinet had overturned the decision of the Tenders Board and gone back to the original plan to use the prisoners.

And as the Minister responsible, he said the prisoners-turned-builders will work under his direct supervision.

“As I told you before, that prison in Vaia’ata is built by someone who has experienced under my supervision,” the Minister said. 

“I am a certified builder and while the Tenders Board is concerned about policy with all due respect, we are trying to save public funds, by allowing me and the prisoners to complete this project.”

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi confirmed the Cabinet’s decision in his weekly radio program on Wednesday, saying that the use of the prisoners will save the Government money and it is the Cabinet and not the Tenders Board that has the final say.

“Keep in mind that when Cabinet decides, that is the final decision," Tuilaepa said.

"The Tenders Board is subject to the Cabinet and that the Cabinet does not listen to only two Ministers; they will obey the decision of the Cabinet."

The irony behind this Government-initiated project – where Minister Tialavea reveals giving the approval to begin construction, despite the absence of lawful building certification, to the Cabinet’s last minute intervention to get work to resume – is that laws were broken without anyone being held responsible.

Minister Tialavea should have been sanctioned by the Prime Minister for making the call to get the building project to proceed without a P.U.M.A. issued development consent. 

And his direct supervision of the prison project – as a Cabinet Minister whose portfolio covers prisons – is highly improper and calls into question the Government’s own integrity in terms of policing its regulatory processes.

And what sort of public perception is the Government trying to give when the Cabinet overturns the decision of the Tenders Board and the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure to give the Vaia’ata Prison Project the green light?

Our regulatory processes that were developed and put in place over the years are there for a purpose, perhaps, our esteemed leaders should attend a refresher course to bring them up to speed on the objectives of the law P.U.M.A. Act 2004.

Tuilaepa singling out “two Ministers” over the saga on his weekly radio show – overlooking the fact that they were only exercising their ministerial responsibilities to resolve a Government project that got off on the wrong foot – is also unbecoming of the country’s longest serving Head of Government.

Ultimately the Vaia’ata Prison Project leaves a bad stench and calls into question the Government’s procurement processes. 

The message that the prison project now gives to citizens is that if it is Government-initiated and funded, it will be governed by two separate set of laws.

Less than six months out from the 2021 General Election, we expect more from a Government that has good governance, transparency and accountability at the core of its anti-corruption platform.

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