Prison strip-search complaint founders

HRC has ‘significant limitations’

Handcuffed by an inability to obtain information and a limited power to investigate claims of systemic abuses, the Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission noted that it could not determine whether three teenage prisoners had been “victimized” during a December 2010 strip search at Fairbanks women’s prison.  

“The Human Rights Commission was unable to say with accuracy whether or not the complainant [referring to one of the three prisoners] was victimized as set out in the complaint,” the report given to the Legislative Assembly last week stated.  

The commission did note that irregularities in strip-search procedures in the prison system as a whole were identified in its review, including the fact that, at the time, there were no written procedures for such searches.  

Commission officials noted it took more than two years – until Nov. 19, 2013 – for them to receive a copy of the final prison strip-search policy, following a 2011 request. A draft copy of the proposal was presented to the Human Rights Commission upon request during 2011, after which the commission suggested some changes to the prison system.  

“The HRC was concerned to note that a significant number of recommendations, concerns and questions raised by the [commission] in September 2011 were not addressed,” the report stated.  

“The prison service’s search policy leaves many questions unanswered and lacks clarification on critical procedures with inherent human rights implications,” the commission continued.  

Prisons Director Neil Lavis, who arrived in Cayman last year, was said to be reviewing the prison strip-search policy, and Human Rights Commission officials noted they would “continue to await evidence” of a human rights- compliant search policy from the prisons.  

The commission’s report appears to be the final word on the prison strip search matter.  

The Caymanian Compass first reported the strip search in the months after a Dec. 3, 2010, letter complaining about the prison officers at Fairbanks was opened and read by one of the guards.  

A day later, a team of at least nine officers was involved in a search of the prison dorm that ended in a strip search of the three prisoners and the recovery of two cellphones. Cellphones are contraband in the prison system.  

“The key issue here is whether the strip search was carried out as a deliberate act of retaliation for the writing of letters of complaint,” then-Governor Duncan Taylor wrote in a Feb. 10, 2012, letter. “I do not believe that it was.”  

Under the Cayman Islands 2009 Constitution Order, the governor is responsible for appointments to the Human Rights Commission after receiving advice on the appointments from the premier and opposition party leader.  

According to information obtained by the Caymanian Compass, two prison officers involved in the search of the Fairbanks dorm reported hearing one of the guards involved in the strip search state: “That’s what you get for writing letters about officers.”  

Testimony from one of the guards during a prison system investigation into the incident noted: “I am 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.’”  

During his personal review of the matter, Governor Taylor said he took into account that these statements were made by one of the prison officers. However, he said that fact by itself does not prove the Dec. 4, 2010, search at Fairbanks was retaliatory.  

Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams’s finding that the search had “an element of retaliation” was “compatible” with the initial findings by the Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs, which investigated the strip-search incident, Mr. Taylor said.  

Ms. Williams ruled in October 2011 that the apology made by the portfolio and the discipline of the prison officers was appropriate, and she recommended no further action in regard to the matter.  

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