A Matter of Justice

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

On December 5, a remarkable document surfaced. Prison Report 2008, authored in secret by Vanuatu inmates on a contraband laptop, is a long, ambling document that alternates between history, documentary and cri de coeur as it recounts the hardships faced by those incarcerated in Vanuatu’s prisons.

At times uncritical, naive and even occasionally self-serving, the report nonetheless contains well documented reports of violence and mistreatment in our prisons.

The report paints a picture of regular physical abuse and neglect in an environment that resists our best efforts to improve it. The prisoners claim that it is precisely these conditions that not only lead them to escape but allow them to succeed.

The prisoners are frankly foolish in their expectations. They make claims for compensation to the tune of 100 million vatu and finish with a warning that if these claims are not addressed within 14 days the prisoners will walk out.

Director of Correctional Services Joshua Bong initially insisted his department had not seen the report, but has since assured the prisoners that a commission of inquiry will be established to investigate the claims. On Thursday, he indicated his intention to stop any effort to leave the prison – with or without outside help –by blockading the road in front of the Stade.

Notwithstanding all precautions taken, the prisoners made good on their threats. On Friday morning at roughly 9:30 a.m., they set the prison alight. In the ensuing chaos, they exited the building, tossed a bible astride the concertina wire atop the fence, and used that foothold to effect their escape.

Some prisoners stayed behind, but the bulk of them marched, first through the Freswota neighbourhood, then on to the Chiefs’ Nakamal, where they remained at the time this column was going to press. The police followed, but there have not yet been any reported arrests.

It is often easy to forget that even after they are sentenced, criminals still possess basic rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, states that these fundamental rights are not granted by government, nor can they be taken away.

Vanuatu’s Correctional Services Act of 2006 outlines the proper and respectful treatment of criminals with the goal of successful reintegration into society once their sentences are completed. At its heart is the contention that society has the right and responsibility to take away someone’s liberty if they break the law, but it must consider as well what happens following their release.

Translating this enlightened legislation into reality has proven difficult at best. Among the litany of accusations made by prisoners are incidents of extreme brutality. Some claim they have been beaten beyond recognition, burned on their lips and genitals with cigarettes, had their kneecaps, hands and arms broken with clubs and rifle butts. There are reports of deliberate neglect, in which prisoners with gunshot and other wounds were denied medical care for extended periods. They report being held in solitary confinement for months at a time, well in excess of the limits allowed in the Act, and of being shackled together for extended periods.

The upcoming commission of inquiry will determine the veracity of these claims, but no one I spoke to with knowledge of prison conditions expressed surprise at the accusations.

Relations between prison guards and prisoners everywhere are rife with petty abuses. No country is exempt from the innate, lamentable tendency of some people to mistreat those under their power. But the abuses described in the prisoners’ report go beyond the pale.

To make things worse, the prisons themselves were, everyone admits, in a frightful state even before being gutted by fire. The photos included in the report are frankly shocking.

Until action is taken to remedy the state of the prisons, it is hard to imagine how the ideals expressed in the Correctional Services Act can ever be achieved.

Happily, that is easily – if not quickly – resolved. New Zealand is committed to assisting in this endeavour. Made confident by the wide support shown throughout Vanuatu for a penal system premised on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, it promised material support and skills development to the transformation of Vanuatu’s prisons.

But New Zealand’s commitment is not unconditional. Says High Commissioner Jeff Langley, “New Zealand is committed to supporting Vanuatu’s Corrections Department. We have a partnership with the Government of Vanuatu that includes responsibilities and obligations on both sides…. Mutual respect for basic human rights makes our partnership possible.”

Prisoners and Correctional Services staff have endured a 3 year wait for the government to follow through on one integral aspect of the plan: the grant of land to construct a new penitentiary.

It’s hard to overstate the benefits of an improved prison environment. The most common complaint among prisoners is of the condition of Port Vila’s two jails. Dating from colonial times, these buildings are almost beyond repair. They are, by any measure, unfit for human habitation.

The inhumane conditions in which the prisoners are kept are the most frequently cited reason for their frequent escapes. Indeed, their dire condition makes escaping that much easier. Friday’s incidents offer further proof, if any were required.

A new prison creates significant opportunities. Not least is the ability to segregate prisoners. High risk individuals would have their own section. Likewise, young offenders and prisoners in remand. This last is critically important. Because they have not yet been found guilty of any crime, remand prisoners must be treated differently, especially where access to legal counsel is concerned. The prisoners’ report details cases of remand prisoners being held in the general prison population for 6 months or more without access to legal resources.

Consider the case of Jimmy Kawia, an 18 year-old from Tanna. He speaks no English, French or even Bislama. His village, made famous by the British TV documentary Meet the Natives, is largely isolated from the outside world, following a lifestyle little changed since pre-colonial times. Since his incarceration, he remains mostly isolated, barely speaking a word to the warders or inmates. It’s hard to imagine how he could have understood, much less participated in, his trial. It’s harder still to imagine his condition when he returns to his village once his 2 ½ year sentence is complete.

It’s long been known that the tensions between kastom and the criminal justice system need to be reconciled. The Malvatumauri and numerous village chiefs have demonstrated their concern in the past, and have taken steps to affect a reconciliation between the two. These actions must be recognised and integrated into the normal operation of the system.

Chiefs play an integral role in our daily lives. There is no reason why this should stop once someone steps through the prison gates. Many quiet victories have been achieved through kastom-inspired village justice and parole programmes, but, with a few notable exceptions, our prisons have been largely neglected.

The Minister of Justice has it within his power to designate Official Visitors. These individuals have the right to visit our prisons whenever they want. While they possess only moral authority over the management of the facilities themselves, that authority, properly exercised, could exert tremendous influence. Our current minister, a chief himself, must surely be aware of the benefit of our chiefs bearing witness and offering guidance to captor and captive alike.

By reminding prisoners that they still have a role in village life, that they are still under the watchful eye of society, it’s likely that many a foolish action could be prevented. Likewise, it’s easy to imagine that guards may restrain themselves from the worst abuses if they know someone is watching.

It’s easy to say that prisoners deserve what they get, that they’ve made their bed and now they should lie in it. And it’s true, to a degree. But there is a point past which a man ceases to be a man. The measure of our society, of our capacity to care for one another, is made according to where we draw that line. There is nothing in kastom or natural justice that condones crossing that threshold.

The great comfort of kastom is that every person has their place, in life, in the village, in the world. The government needs to commit to building a new prison and to allowing our chiefs to continue to watch over their children. If it does –when it does – it will ensure that conditions will improve, both for our prisoners and for society as a whole.