Jammed prisons can release offenders

With the number of inmates at Northward Prison hovering around 200, Cayman Islands legislators have agreed to place the prison system’s long-standing early release policy into law.

The ‘executive early release programme’ for prisoners, which has been in existence in the country since the 1999 prison riots, allows the director of prisons to let ‘lower-risk’ inmates go to ease overcrowding conditions.

‘While the situation at Northward is not as acute as it was 10 years ago, it is fair to say that Northward is substantially overcrowded,’ Acting Chief Secretary Donovan Ebanks told the Legislative Assembly Friday.

Last year, the adult men’s lock up was forced to move some prisoners over to the Eagle House facility for juvenile males to make room. Juvenile female prisoners in Cayman have also historically lacked proper facilities for their monitoring and care and have sometimes been housed at Fairbanks women’s prison.

Mr. Ebanks said the early release programme, combined with alternative sentencing measures and reconstruction at Northward should all help to alleviate the overcrowding problem.

Lawmakers unanimously voted the programme into law Friday.

‘We don’t need a bunch of our people incarcerated, because there goes our future,’ Bodden Town MLA Osbourne Bodden said. ‘It’s Caymanian ladies and young men that you’re looking at generally (in prison). There are some foreigners there, but mostly it’s Caymanians and it hurts.’

Mr. Ebanks said longer incarceration is not necessarily what more minor types of criminals require.

‘We’re confident that the cadre of people to whom this is applied…will have learned their lesson in prison,’ he said. ‘Not everyone who goes in there is a repeat offender.’

According to the amendment to the Prisons Law approved on Friday, only those prisoners who have received a sentence of less than three years would be eligible for early release.

A prisoner fitting that criteria would become eligible for early release within three months of their earliest possible release date after having served at least half their sentence. According to the Prisons Law, every prisoner who observes good behaviour while incarcerated can have one-third of their sentence knocked off automatically.

So if a prisoner was sentenced to two years, and got one-third of that knocked off for good behaviour they could be released within 13 months under the new law.

Mr. Ebanks asked lawmakers to bear in mind that prisoners would be given early release only during sustained prison overcrowding situations, and that release could be revoked at any time during the remainder of the sentence if the former prisoner got in trouble again.

A number of factors have contributed to Cayman’s increasing prison population, according to Mr. Ebanks. Among them, a recent change in the law that required inmates to serve at least 5/9ths of their sentence rather than a minimum of 1/3rd has kept people in prison longer.

Mr. Ebanks told the Legislative Assembly that many of those prisoners are now opting to serve the mandatory 2/3rds of their prison sentence and be released free and clear, rather than be released after serving 5/9ths of their sentence and then required to serve the remaining 4/9ths on parole.

‘On average, the director gives early release to one prisoner a week, maybe about 50 a year,’ Mr. Ebanks said. ‘It all contributes to managing the numbers we have here.’

Reconstruction of the Northward Prison will proceed as budget constraints allow, legislators were told. Mr. Ebanks said some buildings will have to be taken out of service for renovations while others continue to be used. At least one building at the prison site had to be condemned because it is no longer safe.

Mr. Bodden, who recently took a tour of the prison facilities, said it was obvious the prison needed new buildings to house inmates.

‘There were some (buildings), if you kicked the wall too hard…you could kick that wall out,’ he said.

Commissioner of Corrections of Rehabilitation Bill Rattray has proposed allowing the inmates to help reconstruct some of the prison buildings, which he said would teach them job skills as well as fixing structural problems at Northward.