Prisoners plead for better conditions

While an accused rapist from the U.K. on remand in Antigua is sleeping in a comfortable 17X17 room with access to radio, television, a full gym and can get daily visits between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., there are over 300 men and women behind bars at Her Majesty’s Prison in 12X12 cells, crowded at times with up to 12 people.

This is the complaint of several prisoners being held at the Coronation Road facility as they appeal for someone, anyone, to help improve the conditions under which they are being held, to ensure they have access to proper food, medical/dental care and to be able to make contact with their relatives.

In a seven page letter to OBSERVER media, a letter to the Ombudsman and the prison superintendent, the inmates wrote down their frustrations and concerns, and categorised them, starting with conditions from the time they are arrested and concluding on the issue of being held in maximum security as punishment for exposing photos regarding issues at the prison some time ago.

The most worrisome of issues, was the state of the 18th century jail that’s currently severely overcrowded and dilapidated.

“When you get to Her Majesty Prison 1735 the officers give you a blanket, soap and a toilet paper and put you in a cell with 9 other prisoners. We sleep on the floor and anyone who just came into the cell have to sleep by the PAILS, because the cells is so small,” the letter stated.

One inmate elaborated, “When I was sleeping by the PAILS when the other inmates want to pee they walk over me and pee in the PAIL that was next to my head on the floor, THIS IS INHUMANE.”

These conditions are undisputed, and in recent years, not only did the government admit this to the United Nations, but in 2016, the Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Legal Affairs, Senator Maureen Payne-Hyman said the state needed help.

She said, “I’m not going to shirk from it. It is a big problem and I note that most delegations have, in fact, (zoomed) in on that… We have a prison which was built in 1735 for approximately 150 persons and it is well overcrowded. We do need assistance.”

Her comments were heard by representatives from 44 countries, at the United Nations, during the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group.

During that session, the representative from Australia said, “We are also concerned that prison conditions in Antigua & Barbuda are worsening, including overcrowding, inadequate food and hygiene and gang violence.”

Well, since then, May 2016, to be specific, construction started for expansion but then stopped and inmates have had MRSA, chicken pox and other ailments, while the kitchen roof collapsed nearly seven months ago and remains unrepaired. Inmates’ food supply is now provided by the government’s school meals kitchen.

Also, back in 2016 Canada’s representative advised Antigua and Barbuda to, “Take effective measures to ensure that conditions of detention at Her Majesty’s Prison are in conformity with the UN’s standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, including, by reducing overcrowding.” This has actually been a recommendation since the early 2000s.

This however, has not been addressed and was successfully used as an excuse in an extradition case of a U.K. Scotland Yard cop accused of raping a 19-year-old student in Antigua.

Faced with the unchallenged evidence of prison conditions here, a U.K. court refused the first request to extradite the officer for the alleged crime, and then later ordered the extradition after a second request from Antigua, but only on condition that the accused is held elsewhere, under humane conditions.

In comparison, this is where the U.K. prisoner is being held.

The U.K. court said conditions at Antigua and Barbuda’s Her Majesty’s Prison violated Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights – noting that this was due to “the combination of overcrowding and dreadful sanitary arrangements and also the fact that remand prisons are in their cells for 19 to 20 hours a day with not much to do.”

Meanwhile, another issue upon which the inmates lamented in their letter to OBSERVER media yesterday, is the inordinate delay of prosecution of cases.

Added to that, they complained that they are not getting good legal advice, medical and dental care are inadequate, the cells are infested with mosquitoes, there isn’t clean water supply hence inmates have to buy water, and they’re being held behind bars on remand for so long it frustrates them to the point that they choose to plead guilty even when they aren’t.

Again, these are some of the issues the government admitted existed in 2016, and China’s officials at the U.N. meeting said, “We recommend they take measures to alleviate overcrowding in prisons,” while the representative from Germany advised, “…reduce the duration of detention with faster legal proceedings and invest in infrastructure to address prison overcrowding.”

Though nearly all countries commended the twin island state on passing the legislation to reform juvenile justice, address violence against women and children, and ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, many made the same pleas for penal reform.

But, the status quo remains the same – conditions are severely poor and inhumane; some inmates reckon the conditions are actually worse now and accuse the authorities of downplaying them.

They’re calling on the Central Board of Health to investigate “expired” goods being sold to inmates as the authorities allegedly refuse to allow them to receive food from relatives and friends.

The inmates are asking, “What’s the role of the welfare?” and they allege that “the welfare is working on behalf of the prison not for the inmates, and it’s very [UNFAIR] … why do I have to buy drinking water from the jail when the prison is to supply me with clean drinking water, HELP US. All what the jail is most concern about is to stop our family from bringing our food for us so they can sell us their expired goods, CBH needs to look into this please.”

And speaking more about the food, the letter elaborated, “From since I’ve been eating food I’ve never eat nothing like the jail food. The food has no taste, even the pigeons refusing to eat the jail food, that’s how bad the food is. And when you getting food from the outside the slightest thing you do the first thing a officer ask is if you getting food from the outside so they can stop you family from bringing food for us, so we can eat the jail food.”

The act, the letter suggested, is clearly a form of punishment, knowing fully well the quality of the food is bad.

Citing specific examples where medical/dental care is lacking, the letter noted, “Please we need a dentist, every time I go to the medic about a bad tooth I have the officer/nurse always telling me that there’s no dentist so I must let my family pay to pull my teeth. Who really is responsible for a Prisoner, for their medical food and safety?”

The inmates are suggesting further that they see no benefit for them if the country moves from the Privy Council to the Caribbean Court of Justice, even as they indicate they do not have the means to go before either court to appeal their cases.

“Neither of these 2 courts will help a poor man, how many inmates has ever taken a case to the Privy Council? … The final court is only for the government and the rich businesses not the poor man. The government only want to leave the Privy Council because they had some judgments against them in the Privy Council so if they go to the CCJ they can get results in favor of the government. Why fix something when it’s not broken?” they queried.

Another significant concern they outlined is the alleged absence/non response of the Prison Superintendent, Albert Wade who was also promoted to serve the police force as a deputy commissioner of police since April.

“Please can someone release the superintendent of the prison, I need to see him. I’ve been in prison for over 4 years and I requested to see the superintendent of the prison about 10 times now and up to now I can’t see him. Please give us a superintendent that is stationed in the prison please.”

It is for all the above reasons the inmates are crying out “PLEASE HELP US AT HMP 1735.”