EDITORIAL: A colonial-era monument

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If you thought that this was going to be about the Privy Council versus Caribbean Court of Justice, you would be wrong.  As social media lights up with allegations of abuse and deplorable conditions at Her Majesty’s Prison (again!), we thought that it would be good to take a stroll down memory lane to show just how much we care about the prison and the concept of rehabilitation.
From our perspective, the prison is one of the key weaknesses in our justice system.  Our focus continues to be on incarceration and punishment rather than rehabilitation, and until we change that focus, we will have to house more and more prisoners in larger and larger prisons, if they ever get built.
Beyond the societal pitfalls that steer too many of our youth towards crime, we fail when we do not seek to rehabilitate them when they are caught in the net.  When it comes to our prison, it appears that most of the available resources are spent just trying to keep the status-quo.  There is no plan and few resources committed towards a new penal system that would seek to curb the rates of recidivism.  The prison is simply a terrible place that houses inmates in appalling conditions until they get out.  Inmates are not shown a new, positive  path while held in custody, so they are at risk of returning to the life they left before becoming an unwilling guest of the state.
As evidence of how little we have advanced, let’s cast your mind back to 1999.  The government of the day was the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) and the attorney general, was none other than Dr. Errol Cort.  The ALP took a very controversial decision to hand over management of the prison to Trinidad-based Amalgamated Security Services (ASS) and depending on who you listened to, things went from bad to worse. Then, in April of 1999, the Caribbean Human Rights Network (CHRN) issued a press release calling for an independent assessment of the prison stating that they were “profoundly distressed” over the reports emanating from within the prison walls.
Dr. Cort was not a happy man and flatly rejected the outside assessment.  He corrected the CHRN’s assertion that the Royal Commission, set-up to investigate the circumstances surrounding a fire at the prison, would also review the conduct of the prison administration since the appointment of ASS.  No, said Cort.  The commission, led by Anglican Bishop Orland Lindsay, would only investigate the fire, and nothing else, despite the CHRN’s reports of deplorable conditions and violations of human rights.
If some of that all seems kind of deja vu to you, the next bit surely will.  Dr. Cort told the human rights folks that they need not worry, the government was committed to ensuring the prisoners’ rights and would be upgrading the facilities at the current prison pending construction of a modern prison.  Well guess, what? Almost 20 years on, and the then “current” prison is the same prison we have today.  Not only that, the rehabilitation programme that would be integrated into the new, modern 500-cell prison, which would provide formal and non-formal skills training for inmates, remains as elusive as the prison itself.  
Now, before the hardcore among us start labeling us as bleeding-heart liberals that want to establish a hotel for prisoners, let us go on record to state that we believe that prison should not be an inviting place.  No one should think that prison is okay. The environment should be tough enough that nobody would want to return.  That said, the prisoners in our system are human beings.  They are somebody’s children. They have families and friends, and there are people who care for their welfare.  Many of them have made simple mistakes that are not significant enough that they are condemned to a system that puts them at risk of coming out worse than they entered. 
It is through these lens that we need to look at our penal system.  We need to shift our focus away from incarceration and punishment and focus on trying to rehabilitate as many of our inmates as possible, so that they become productive members of society.   We should not allow our society to simply turn its back on those who fall afoul of the law, because that only weakens our collective. 
We are just a few months short of 20 years since the CHRN issued that press release.  Since then, there has been only talk about the new prison and a robust rehabilitation programme.  Fires continue to happen, prisoners continue to complain and reports continue to be written (including a 2016 State Department report and a 2016 UN report that are very critical).  And, of course, politicians continue to promise, including Dr. Cort again as UPP Minister of National Security in 2013 and most recently, Attorney General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin who, a couple of days ago, again promised a new prison..
  We continue to be spectators to a situation that is in obvious need of immediate attention but we do nothing.  We know that it is our cultural inclination to have little sympathy for those who find themselves behind the bars of 1735 – a name given to the prison that reflects the year that it was constructed – but that date, alone, should be enough to let us know that the time has long come to deal with the situation.  We talk of casting-off all ties to colonial days, but we maintain a monument to those days in the form of our prison.  A clear indication that we need to look closely at our priorities. 
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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