No Silver Bullet

[Originally written for the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

The recent prisoner escape has –quite understandably– raised emotions among Port Vila residents. Our collective inability to end this chronic threat has led many to call for drastic action in order to resolve the problem once and for all.

If only it were that easy.

Much has been said on the topic, most of it in the heat of the moment. As difficult as it may be when we feel our loved ones are threatened, we need to step back from our emotions so we can properly evaluate the situation.

Let’s consider some of the pronouncements that have been made in the media over the last week or so:

1) Prison escapes are getting worse, not better. Correctional Services is a failure.

Unproven. The frequency of prison escapes has dropped in direct relation to the Government’s commitment of funds and resources to Correctional Services. There’s every reason to believe that escapes will decrease even further once a proper correctional centre is built.

2) Escapes diminished drastically after the VMF were tasked with rounding up prisoners.

Patently false. The largest escape in the history of Port Vila’s history was motivated in part because of the role the VMF played in prisoners’ regular and brutal mistreatment. Joshua Bong was unable to stop a mass escape even when told by the prisoners themselves when the breakout going to happen.

The escapes stopped (until now) only after a thorough-going revamp of procedures accompanied by the construction of a more secure and more humane facility.

3) None of this would have happened if we hadn’t let foreign influences dictate to us.

This is Vanuatu’s problem. Placing the blame on others’ shoulders is intellectually lazy and un-productive.

Prison reform was not foisted upon us. This path was freely chosen by the Government. Not to put too fine a point on it, if both parties were as committed to the process as New Zealand is, it might have been implemented –properly– 5 years ago.

We need to recognise that New Zealand agreed to partner with the Government in reaction to the prisons’ sieve-like security post-1980. We also need to ask ourselves why a programme that is effective in New Zealand consistently fails in Vanuatu.

If reports are correct, the direct cause of the prisoners’ escape was the fact that they were left unsupervised for at least 30 minutes because a guard wanted a cup of tea.

While kastom-based village justice programmes have proven useful in rehabilitating many offenders, a minority of our prisoners are dangerous and probably beyond rehabilitation. I challenge anyone to come up with a more measured and pragmatic plan for them than that which has been proposed.

4) Prison guards should have firearms.

This suggestion flies in the face of prison doctrine world-wide. Guards who interact directly with the prison population are deliberately not given firearms because those weapons can be captured and  turned against them, making the escapee(s) even more dangerous.

Ask yourself: How would you feel if you heard these same prisoners were loose in Port Vila and armed with pistols or assault rifles?

Reports have suggested that the guards allowed themselves to be intimidated by the mere threat of stoning. Clearly, steps need to be taken to ensure they don’t lose control of their charges so easily. But giving guards guns makes things worse, not better.

5) Escaped prisoners’ human rights should be ignored.

Let’s be honest: This is really just a polite way of saying that prisoners should be shot, or at least beaten at will.

Without going into the why’s and wherefor’s of this debate, let’s at least be clear about one thing: If the police or VMF are going to be given the power to summarily punish or even execute certain individuals, then they need some clear rules established concerning when, why and how this happens.

Nobody is going to argue that Kasimir’s rights outweigh those of our sons and daughters. But if we’re going to authorise his trackers to shoot him on sight, what’s keeping your son or daughter out of the crossfire?

When the bullets start flying, they don’t distinguish between Good Guys and Bad.

Moreover, does this death penalty (let’s call it what it is) apply to all escapees? Consider the real case of a young Tannese man straight from the island, jailed for theft. He speaks no Bislama or English and doesn’t fully understand why he’s been incarcerated. Were he to escape, unaware of the consequences, should we shoot him too?

If society is intent on putting aside people’s human rights under certain circumstances, then for its own sake it had damn well better be clear about what those circumstances are, lest the innocent suffer with the guilty.

Equally important, the responsibility for who gets to live and who dies is too great to be trusted to a few individuals, both for their sake and for ours. We as a society must own that choice.

Until the Law says otherwise, killing or beating prisoners after their apprehension is a crime.

6) Prisoners don’t deserve respect or kindness.

Anyone who’s heard the details of the crimes committed by some of these men would be hard-pressed to show even the slightest flicker of compassion. My honest reaction to the news that one of them had kidnapped a young woman from my neighbourhood, torturing and raping her for four days was… well, suffice it to say that I don’t know if he’d survive 5 minutes alone with me.

But before we indulge that desire to return an eye for an eye, we need to remember two things:

  1. Some prisoners truly are psychopaths and a danger to society. But they are the minority. Treating all of them that way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kick the sweetest-natured dog often enough and eventually he will bite back.
  2. The unbearable, inhuman conditions described by the prisoners themselves led even remand prisoners to escape. Poor prison conditions only made them more desperate, more willing to go to any lengths to escape.

Treating prisoners humanely is a pragmatic concern, not a moral one. Simply put, a prisoner who is treated with a modicum of decency has less reason to run away.

I have no silver-bullet solutions to offer here. That’s because they don’t exist. We’re deceiving ourselves if we pretend they do.

It’s not my place to prescribe the choices Vanuatu society makes about its own offenders. All I’m suggesting is that, when we consider our options, we think them all the way through.

Dealing with its transgressors is one of human society’s defining challenges. It’s a thicket of thorns that has entangled us throughout history, one from which we can never completely emerge.