Sunday, September 28, 2014

Her Majesty Prisons (HMP) and the harsh realities of crime and punishment in the modern Bahamas

Prison reform must be a national priority

The Nassau Guardian Editorial

Her Majesty’s Prisons (HMP) is obsolete. Built in simpler and more peaceful times, the country’s only correctional facility has seen its physical capacity simply overwhelmed by the harsh realities of crime and punishment in the modern Bahamas.

Today, HMP holds more than 1,500 inmates – a far greater number than envisioned by those who designed it – with the Maximum Security Unit housing more than double the 400 convicts it was originally intended to accommodate.

In addition, there are serious health and sanitation issues, staffing shortages, security concerns and infrastructural problems.

Minister of National Security Dr. Bernard Nottage is aware of the situation. Blaming the chronic overcrowding on the slow movement of the courts and a consequent build-up of remand prisoners, earlier this year, he said it could be alleviated if more inmates were granted bail or sentenced to community service instead of prison time.

While it is true that there are currently hundreds detained at HMP awaiting trial, there are a number of problems with Nottage’s suggestion.

For one thing, despite the repeated promise to usher in Swift Justice, it is unclear whether the government will ever manage to influence the speed at which the judiciary operates – or even whether such an outcome exclusively of the government’s doing is desirable, given the country’s constitutionally-enshrined separation of powers.

For another, the public at large can be expected to express some level of discomfort at the idea of certain categories of accused persons being released on their own recognizance, particularly in light of the many recent claims of persons committing violent offenses while on bail.

Perhaps most importantly, Nottage’s solution seems rather modest considering the severity of the problem and its potential consequences for society.

Back in early 2012, an era of grand political promises, the then opposition PLP said the state of the prison was unacceptable and could not be allowed to persist.

Its election manifesto said: “The increase in crime in our society and the number of offenders at HMP has resulted in severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The ratio of officers to inmates is not ideal, and the health and working conditions are a concern to both inmates and the officers assigned to watch them.”

The PLP promised that, if elected, it would build a much-needed clinic at the prison, increase staff numbers to “safe levels”, establish halfway houses to smooth the entry of ex-offenders into society and even consider building a new prison complex.

The now governing party made a number of pledges in the run-up to the May 2012 election, many of which have been forced onto the back-burner by unpleasant economic realities.

Even in these cash-strapped times, addressing the state of Her Majesty’s Prisons must remain among our top national priorities.

The majority of HMP inmates are young men who will one day rejoin this society, but it is very difficult to rehabilitate a person under inhumane and unsanitary conditions. Whether they return to us as promising assets or dangerous liabilities therefore hangs in the balance.

September 27, 2014

thenassauguardian editorial