Cayman Islands prison inmates will soon be allowed to form what might be described as a union or association, according to prison service officials who spoke to the Caymanian Compass last month.
The group, to be known as the Inmates Council, will be made up from within the existing population of Her Majesty’s Prison Northward – Cayman’s only adult male lock up.
Criteria for membership will require that councillors be Class D prisoners – the lowest risk inmates – with no incidents on their prison records for at least two years, or low risk inmates who have been at the prison for at least one full year.
Prison Acting Deputy Director Aduke Natalie Joseph-Caesar said she wished to assure the public that the Inmates Council would not be tantamount to convicted criminals running day-to-day operations at Northward.
“It’s like peer mentoring,” Ms Joseph-Caesar said. “They are not responsible in running the prison; they don’t have any rights in dictating what management decisions are. They are going to be heard, and we are going to look into their matters, but the final decision lies with the prison.
“It gives the inmates a voice, so they can meet with management and discuss what some of the issues are. That’s all contributing to the security of the prison.”
The new approach comes following a United Kingdom prisons inspectorate report that essentially gave Her Majesty’s Prisons in the Cayman Islands a failing grade in all areas it looked at, including safety and security.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office-led inspectorate report, due to be released in February, is the culmination of what’s been an 18-month review into all conceivable aspects of the Cayman Islands prisons system. It is the first such comprehensive review to be done on the system since 2001.
Issues surrounding lack of transparency in the adoption of a complaints system for prisoners and prison staff were identified in earlier reviews of the prison system done by the Canadian Institute of Public Administration.
There were overriding concerns expressed in the review about a lack of confidence in prison management. Officials from the Canadian public administration group could not “speak to the accuracy” of those concerns, but found a number of individuals they interviewed said the same.
One mechanism the prisons system has to increase confidence and accountability, Canadian reviewers noted, is the Prisons Inspection Board. Board members perform routine checks at Northward adult men’s prison, Fairbanks women’s prison and Eagle House Juvenile Detention Centre. However, the report questioned the effectiveness of those inspections, since board members were required to give two days’ advance notice of their arrival and are typically escorted by one or more prison officers.
“This leads to a perception … [that] the board’s inspection is not of the institution operating as it does on a daily basis, but an inspection of the institution operating as the prison wants the board to think it operates,” the report read.
The report also recommended the government create an independent prisoner complaint process, establishing an agency outside of government to act on the complaint. Right now, prisoner complaints are handed directly to prison officers.
The system led, in at least one recent case, to claims of a retaliatory strip search made against three female inmates at Fairbanks Prison after one of them sent a complaint letter which was opened and read by a prison guard. The letter complained about the guards’ laziness and alleged failure to provide medication to inmates in certain instances. Canadian officials, along with the local government portfolio, acknowledged that some prisoner complaints would be “vexatious” or “devoid of substance”. However, they concluded that – if the complaints have some merit – the current procedure for handling them is simply not fair and could result in fear of reprisals.
“A well-managed prison should have no concern over the receipt of prisoner complaints – they are part of the institutional setting,” the Canadian institute report stated.
Complaints are only one of the matters that need to be resolved within the prison system, Ms Joseph-Caesar said.
“It’s about them learning to take responsibility for themselves … it’s about them encouraging each other to follow their treatment plans,” she said. “Instead of every time you want something resolved, you have to shout and fight … they have to develop their interpersonal skills.”
Membership in an advisory council may give prison inmates something to shoot for, notes Eric Bush, chief officer of the government Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs, which has overall responsibility for managing the prisons service.
“This is another method of emulating life and showing that, if you make good decisions, you have something to work towards,” Mr. Bush said, “rather than saying ‘OK, lock away, go play dominoes and watch TV’.”