Two officers at Her Majesty’s Prison Fairbanks were disciplined earlier this year following a December strip search of three female inmates in a prison dorms.
The search was made on 4 December, 2010; one day after a few of the inmates had written complaint letters concerning certain prison policies and which also alleged laziness or inactivity on the part of some of the prison officers.
According to a sworn affidavit filed by one of the inmates who was strip searched: “A large group of officers came to our dormitory and announced that they were going to strip search us for a cell phone. I refused to be strip searched. I was then forcibly held down, cuffed, strip searched, bruised and had my clothing ripped. Only after I was forcibly strip searched did one female officers go to my bed to retrieve the phone.”
Following the search, two prisoners in the dorm, as well as two prison officers who were there at the time, reported one of the officers involved stating “that’s what you get for writing letters about officers”. The prisoners involved and their families have told the Caymanian Compass they believed the search was retaliatory.
However, findings following an investigation by the government Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs – which has supervisory responsibility for local prisons – indicated prison officers acted on good intelligence regarding the use of cell phones, which is officially not allowed within the Cayman Islands prison system. Although the methods used in effecting the strip searches prior to a search of the inmates’ dorm room may not have been advisable, the portfolio said it found no evidence the search was done in retaliation.
“The search conducted on 4 December, 2010, was conducted as a direct result of intelligence that an inmate living in the …’pod’ … had a cell phone,” wrote Portfolio Chief Officer Franz Manderson in early March, detailing the findings of the government probe. “The investigating officer has found no evidence to substantiate the allegation that the search was linked to a complaint letter written by ———.”
The names of the inmates and prison guards involved in the search are being withheld by the Compass for legal reasons.
Mr. Manderson also sent a formal apology to the father of one of the inmates involved and directed that written policies be drafted to prevent this type of incident from happening in the future. The officers were given written reprimands and required to attend sensitivity training.
By all accounts, the letters written to prisons officials by the inmates were not terribly controversial.
One letter, obtained by the Compass and written on 3 December, griped of changes to Fairbanks prison policies that only allowed “hand-ins” for prisoners on Thursdays and weekends. Previously, female inmates were allowed to have family members or friends deliver certain supplies and goods to them every day, but prison officials changed the policy to bring in it line with Her Majesty’s Prison Northward – the facility housing male inmates.
The letter also slammed prison guards who the inmate claimed were wasting hours during the work day sitting around.
“I see officers spend hours doing Sudoku puzzles, reading books and magazines,” the inmate wrote. “Since my time here I have observed prison officers cooking themselves breakfast, eating and talking on their phone while we are begging for medication.”
The prisoner’s family said the letter was not delivered to Prison Director Dwight Scott, but was rather opened by one of the guards. A total of five letters were written by different inmates complaining of different issues around the same time.
According to an investigation undertaken by Portfolio Deputy Chief Officer Eric Bush, three of the letters were given to the unit head of Fairbanks prison. The other two letters were returned to the prisoners who wrote them with instructions to write them on the appropriate prison complaint form.
The portfolio’s initial review of the search found prison officers had received information a Fairbanks prisoner was in possession of a cell phone.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Bush said this is a more serious matter than it might seem.
“The lay person may feel a cell phone … should not be a security risk,” Mr. Bush said. “[However], in the hands of individuals it can be used as a method or tool to orchestrate chaos and murder.”
The three prisoners in the Fairbanks cell, all about 18 years old at the time of the search, had never been in prison prior to their incarceration in 2010. Two were being held for armed robbery and the other on conviction for causing death by driving while under the influence of alcohol.
According to the portfolio report, the prison’s security director contacted Mr. Scott by telephone to inform him of the prisoner search. There was no evidence any written authorisation for the strip search was given by the prisons director, but Mr. Bush said previous prisons policy did not require that.
Three female prison officers entered the dorm around 9.30pm on 4 December, 2010. They were supported by two other female guards and three male guards who did not enter the dorm itself, according to Mr. Bush.
“Nothing was found as a result of the strip search,” Mr. Bush’s report stated. “A property search was then conducted by the same three female guards of the dormitory. Two cellphones with sim cards were found as a result.”
One inmate involved in the incident spoke with the Compass – on condition of anonymity – about what happened.
She said the guards first asked whether the inmates had anything “they wanted to declare”. One inmate indicated she didn’t have anything; the other two didn’t say anything.
The strip search then commenced.
“They took me into the bathroom … and they told me that I would have to take off my shirt and anything I had underneath and turn around. So I took off what I had up top and I turned and then they told me to take off my bottoms.
“I was like ‘well I really don’t feel comfortable doing this’ and they were like ‘well, you’re going to have to do it, or we’re going to have to do it by force’. The three officers and me started fighting.
“I went against the wall and told them ‘I’m not taking off my pants and I put my hands between my legs … so they couldn’t take off my pants. They got me to the ground … and I’m kicking and fighting. Two officers were on me, they lifted me up, took me out of the showers and put me on the ground. One of the officers is on my head and another officer is on my body, while the [third] officer is going through my parts – you could say.”
“They spread everything and whatever,” the inmate said, indicating the guards made contact with her private parts during the search.
According to the inmate, the cellphone she now admits was in her possession was lying openly on the bed of her prison dorm.
“It was right there on my bed,” she said. “When they came up to the dorm I was on it, I was texting.”
One area where the portfolio report does find fault with the prison officers is that the strip search – based on the threat level posed by the inmates – was “inconsistent with the level of threat, based on the intelligence”.
However, Mr. Bush was quick to point out his review had the benefit of hindsight, whereas prison officers must react in a split second to a situation that might have turned even more violent.
“I am reviewing it after the fact,” Mr. Bush said.
In his report, made in February, Mr. Bush wrote: “I am not convinced that the decision to strip search all three females for contraband was reasonable.”
Two of the prisoners reported hearing one of the prison guards involved in the search stating “that’s what you get for writing a letter about officers” after the incident was over.
This account is corroborated by statements from two prison officers taken in the course of the government’s review of the incident.
One prison officer stated during her interview: “Yes, [the prison officer] said ‘that’s what you get for writing letters about officers.’ I was in the shower area and heard that.”
A second officer, who was also on the scene, said: “I’m not sure how to put it word-for-word, but my understanding was that the search was brought on by some letters wrote and something was said about that’s what happens when you write letters.”
These statements, taken in the context of what occurred on 4 December, 2010, do not equate to proof that the search was done in retaliation, Mr. Manderson said.
“It should be noted that the complaint letter was in relation to a policy decision made by prison management and was not directed at any prison officer,” Mr. Manderson wrote in a letter to one of the prisoners father’s in March. “This supports the findings of the investigation.
“In relation to the strip search … the investigating officer has determined that [the inmate] was not singled out or treated any differently from the other inmates in the same ‘pod’. The investigating officer has concluded that, on balance and in hindsight, other search techniques could have been deployed on 4 December, 2010 other than a strip search. However … there is no evidence to suggest that the strip search was capricious or retaliatory.”
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Manderson said the strip search was conducted to ensure the safety of prison officers who were searching the pod. As a matter of policy, all prison inmates – male and female – are strip searched upon entering the facilities for the first time. However, information obtained through an open records request provided to the Compass stated that no strip searches were made prior to searches of prison dorms in more than 70 incidents where cell phones or sim cards were found on inmates at Northward Prison during 2010.
Mr. Manderson said Cayman residents should try to keep this incident in perspective.
“We’re not operating a hotel, and we have to enforce the rules of the prison very effectively,” he said. “The public demands that of us.”
The incident on 4 December, 2010, has led to a review of policies regarding inmate strip searches and search procedures within the prison system for both males and females, following a review of the incident by both Cayman’s Human Rights Commission and Governor Duncan Taylor’s office. Mr. Bush said government officials were still examining those changes on Thursday.
Among those new requirements include the written approval of any inmate strip searches by prison leaders.
Mr. Bush said clear direction would be given for inmates wishing to make complaints to the prison service and that complaints forms would be simplified.
Precisely how search policies would be changed was not clear by press time, but the portfolio did recommend the level of intelligence as to the threat to prison officers should be established prior to the search.
“If a search beyond a cursory or pat-down search is required, it is recommended that written authorisation be requested by the director or deputy director,” Mr. Bush wrote in his report on the incident. “It is also recommended that all searches be documented to create a database for reference.”