Harsh conditions will continue to prevail at Her Majesty’s Prison on Coronation Road as the minister responsible for prison, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin said the only solution is to build a new prison, and this “will not happen in six months.”
Yesterday, he told OBSERVER media “these things take time” and patience is required, as he indicated yet again, that he will be taking three proposals to the Cabinet for review with respect to the construction of a new jail.
“There is work being done at the moment on the prison. But, we recognise that we do need to have a new prison built – that is being looked at.”
But the minister said the problems plaguing the prison here are not unique to Antigua and Barbuda.
“May I be so bold as to say, I’m not trying to make an excuse here, but the prison situation in the entire Caribbean is of grave concern,” he said.
Last week, the U.S. State department published the ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA 2017 HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT which lamented harsh conditions and highlighted the issues of bribery and corruption.
The report states that the superintendent of prisons, Albert Wade, reported that bribery and corruption in the prison involve guards who are allegedly taking bribes and smuggling contraband to the prisoners.
The banned items being smuggled to the prisoners in the overcrowded jail include liquor, cellular phones, and marijuana.
The human rights review upon which this report is based, covers the period last year, up to September.
However, our newsroom is aware that the conditions have not changed since then. In recent weeks, the prison superintendent presented a four-page report to the High Court outlining these same issues.
He also reported that a male prison officer was suspended for smuggling contraband into the prison on March 24, this year. He did not specify the type of contraband.
Nearly two years ago, the government embarked on a prison expansion and renovation project, following another human rights report which harshly criticised the conditions and the fact that nothing was being done about it.
However, the project was halted due to a lack of finances. Conditions in the prison worsened and there were subsequent outbreaks of chicken pox, MRSA and most recently, scabies.
In recent weeks also, the roof of the prison kitchen collapsed, and despite a promise by the government to fix it right away, up to Sunday afternoon, a prison officer reported that it remained the same – crumbling bit by bit, above the heads of those who have to cook and guard the kitchen daily.
But, what are the authorities doing about the situation that has been this way for more than a decade?
Benjamin responded yesterday, saying, “These are intricate matters that take time to be consumed. Designs have to be made, plans have to be concretised, we have to make projections. We have got to build the prison that it would last over 100 years. These things don’t happen overnight, they take time.”
He added, “It is not right to expect miracles in six months, it will not take six months.”
The prison remains overcrowded – up to last week there were over 300 inmates behind bars though the facility was built for 150 prisoners. And, despite the overcrowding, the prison staff numbers are not going up to ensure adequate supervision. The prison is currently staffed with 101 officers who work on a shift system to provide 24-hour security at the jail.
According to the human rights report, the conditions under which they work and how prisoners live, are extreme.
Remand inmates are forced to live in cells with convicts because of limited space; there’s extremely poor ventilation causing cell temperatures to remain very high, and hygiene is inadequate.
According to the report, the toilet facilities are, “inadequate, with slop pails used in all cells except for those of the female prisoners.”
The men’s section has no showers; inmates used buckets to wash themselves. Conditions in the kitchen were said to be unsanitary, “aggravated by the presence of insects, rodents, and stray cats, to catch rodents. The yard area also had stray cats and rodents.”