The minister responsible for the prison, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, has stated that there is only one solution to the situation at the prison and that is to build a new prison, and that “will not happen in six months.” We understand that the long term solution to the prison situation is a new prison, but we cannot accept that there are no other options to provide relief to the extreme conditions at the prison.
Now, we know that there are lots of people asking themselves, “Why are harsh conditions at the prison an issue?” They use the argument that prison conditions are supposed to be harsh. We understand that sort of reasoning, but we don’t necessarily agree with it. Sure, prisons are not supposed to be places of comfort, and the conditions should not be warm and inviting like a hotel, but at the same time the conditions should not be so extreme that they are considered inhumane.
The state of the prison has been a shame on our society for a very long time. It cuts across politics since all parties have had the opportunity to correct the situation, or at the very least, improve the situation, and they have failed. Overcrowding is not a new thing. Dilapidated conditions are not a new thing. And certainly, corruption and contraband are not new. The ills at the prison that exist today are the same ills that plagued the prison yesterday and for many years prior. There is little to nothing new to report, except maybe the collapsed kitchen roof, which really is not all that new.
The problem for Minister Benjamin is, the prison is his to deal with. That is also a good thing because if he were to correct the situation, it would not only provide relief, but it would also be part of his legacy.
The condition of the prison was shameful under the United Progressive Party (UPP) and the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), and it continues to be that way under the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party, despite the promises to make it better. After four years at the reins, it is difficult to accept the argument or excuse that things “will not happen in six months.” No one has that kind of unrealistic expectation. But it has not been six months. It has been four years and counting. We understand that financing has been scarce and we know that the prison system is dreadful all over the Caribbean, but we are supposed to be better than the rest of the Caribbean. The minister acknowledges that the country needs a new prison, but adds only that it is “being looked at.” What does that mean? How long have we been looking at a new prison?
Over two years ago, Prison Superintendent Albert Wade reported that at least 15 inmates in the remand section, inhabit a one-bed, 15 x 15 feet cell, fit for six at the most. Back then, the UPP jumped to endorse the new prison idea (yes, the same one they failed to deliver), and it was a great opportunity for a non-partisan, joint effort to push the initiative through. Needless to say, nothing happened.
That was two years ago; however, more than 15 years ago, the United States’ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor 2001, described conditions at our “18th Century prison” as “poor.” The report also stated that, “the prison remained overcrowded, with approximately 150 prisoners.” Now we house more than 300 inmates! And that’s not all! According to the report, “prison conditions are unsanitary and inadequate, particularly in regard to food, recreation, and rehabilitation.” And, guess what else made the report? “Government officials and concerned private individuals agreed that problems are likely to continue until funds can be found to build a new prison outside the city precincts.” So, anyone else feeling a bit of déjà vu? Have we not read this script and seen this sorry movie before?
As a society, we can continue to turn a blind eye to this situation, and politicians can continue to make hollow promises, but we do so to our detriment. As we have argued before, 1735 may be punishment for anyone who enters the gates, but ultimately society will be punished by many of those who leave. Divorcing someone of their freedom is a significant punishment; however, also divorcing someone of their dignity under inhumane conditions is something completely different.
Before we end, we cannot forget to mention the prison staff that also have to endure harsh conditions at the prison. We can only imagine how their morale and psyche are affected. It is little wonder that some become corrupt and contribute toward making a bad situation even worse. There is little there to instill pride, and as goodness dwindles, darkness takes over.
So, to those in authority who have the ability to influence this situation in any way, we ask that you do whatever you can to dispense of the talk and help move toward action. Politics should play no role in seeking solutions to the many ills at our prison. And, until there is a new prison, we are convinced that options exist. We can start by employing some of the skills within the prison walls and allow the prisoners to start helping themselves. Get all of those incarcerated tradesmen working to better their environment and their lives.
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