AG says prison overcrowding is normal, but will be addressed

The country's national prison
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By Latrishka Thomas

“There is no overcrowding…it’s a normal situation that arises,” Attorney General Steadroy ‘Cutie’ Benjamin said yesterday when asked about threats of a riot due to crammed conditions behind the red gates of Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP).

Yesterday, Observer received reports that 10 Barbudans had allegedly been transported to the prison on Thursday evening to be detained.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, inmates who arrive at HMP (also referred to as 1735 for the year it was built) are placed in quarantine instead of being immediately introduced into the general prison population.

However, with both the general prison area and the quarantine facility above maximum capacity, some of the prisoners reportedly had to be housed in an area within the general prison population.

Benjamin told Observer that “the prison has for years been overcrowded. We all know that the prison was built to house 176 persons. That has been fluctuating from 320 right down to 195.”

He said that he was informed yesterday morning that, “the prison population is 295”.

But this means that ‘1735’ is operating at more than 100 percent capacity and that fact has evoked feelings of anxiety, concern and anger among the inmate population – who are already overwhelmed with the congestion situation.

According to one source – who spoke with Observer on condition of anonymity – the prisoners are not pleased that they could be exposed to any potential Covid-19 infections and are threatening to escalate their displeasure if there is no urgent resolution.

The AG believes however that the rumour of a looming riot is “exaggerated.”

He said that it is an attempt to “inflame the situation to have it created”.

“But I have no indication of any such uprising contemplated or otherwise in the prison,” he added.

Nevertheless, Benjamin who is also the minister of Public Safety, explained that plans to use containers to create cells are still in the works.

He said that since HMP will officially open to visitors on Monday, work will resume “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

Moreover, according to him, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is what halted the plans for the prison.

“The situation is, since the Covid situation arose in Antigua, all government resources or most of it really, were directed to deal with health issues…

“I understand too that the prison is equally important but it’s a matter of priority. When you have scarce resources, one has to allocate it to make sure that the most pressing thing is dealt with.” Meanwhile, concerns are also being mounted regarding other protocols at the prison, including hurricane preparedness – amid the Atlantic hurricane season – the supply of potable water and the state of the hygiene facilities.

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