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Use of prisoners on “private” errands. Risks to Government integrity

Just because it is allowed does not make it right, which is why the decision by the Minister of Police and Prisons to use inmates for “personal projects” warrants closer scrutiny.

A story in the Thursday, August 6, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer reported on the engagement of inmates from the Tanumalala Prison, who were sighted early in the week clearing land belonging to the Minister’s family at Falelauniu.

But Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, in response to questions from the Samoa Observer, said he did nothing wrong and there is a process in place at the Ministry of Police and Prisons, where such requests to engage prisoners in labour-intensive work outside the confines of the prison can be made.

“I am the Minister and I can request the Ministry for the prisoners to come work on my personal projects, including the clearing of [family land] in Falelauniu,” he said.

“I want to make it clear that the work done in Falelauniu this week was not conducted by the inmates, rather it was done by family members from Faleapuna.”

It is understood inmates from the Tanumalala Prison initially cleared the plot of land at Falelauniu.

Asked about the process, Tialavea said that a request is put through to the Ministry explaining the purpose of the request and it is the Ministry’s “prerogative to grant or deny.” 

The Police Superintendent who oversees the Tanumalala Prison, Soloi Iosefa, also told the Samoa Observer that the arrangement that the Minister used is not new and the leader did not violate any laws.

To be fair to the Minister, he is not the first Government leader to invoke this provision of the law governing the use of State Prisoners to provide menial labour on public or private property, and is unlikely to be the last.

Over the years prisoners from the now shut Tafaigata Prison were used as labourers to clear property of the then Head of State and even former Police Commissioners. 

Therefore, Tialavea is correct in saying that the precedent has been set, and his statement has been backed up by a senior Police Officer who is directly involved with the prisons.

And we would understand if the prisoners were used to clean around public-owned properties such as the Tupua Tamasese Meaole National Hospital [T.T.M.] at Moto’otua, the Apia Park stadium or a Government-owned building. 

But is it morally and ethically right for a Cabinet Minister, whose portfolio responsibilities directly cover the country’s prison system and the inmates, to use prisoners to clear his family’s private land?

Public perception of a Cabinet Minister with oversight over our prison system, using prisoners to clear his or her private land, would not look good for a Government that continues to promote a strong anti-corruption platform.

We believe the process within the Ministry of Police and Prisons – which Tialavea makes reference to when discussing how different organisations can use it to get prisoners to undertake menial labour at a property of their choice – is a grey area and could be open to abuse.

It is time the Government revisited the policy and reviewed it to ensure that public officials, including Cabinet Ministers and staff within the Ministry of Police and Prisons, do not put themselves in positions – through their engagement of the prisoners in work on privately-owned land and properties – which would risk bringing their offices into disrepute. 

In fact introducing a policy to make it mandatory for the Ministry of Police and Prisons, to only release prisoners to work at publicly-owned infrastructure as well as at church and community-owned properties, should address this issue.

Looking at the issue in retrospect, there is a policy currently in place at the Ministry of Police and Prisons to cater for the engagement of prisoners in “private work”. 

But the fact that a Cabinet Minister can invoke that policy to use State Prisoners at non-public owned property – even if the MP can pay the Ministry for their “services” – is morally and ethically wrong.

Managing the public’s confidence in the Government and the public sector as a whole is always a work in progress, as our public officials who are either employed as civil servants or given the mandate through elected office to serve the people, go about their daily activities to ensure essential services are delivered to our people.

The existence of such a policy in the Ministry of Police and Prisons, where State Prisoners are seen to be available at the whims of public officials, is only likely to result in the loss of confidence in the Government’s integrity.

It will not hurt for other Government Ministries and Agencies to also subject their systems to similar reviews, with a view to identifying policies that are vulnerable and could result in public officials placing themselves in contentious positions which would further lead to the eroding of public trust in the office.

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