A Caymanian prisoner who died in a Panama jail cell had been in negotiations with officials in his homeland to be transferred out of the dangerous Central American prison.
Mark Bodden, who died from head injuries apparently sustained in a fall from his bunk in the overcrowded La Joya prison, was in regular contact with Deputy Governor Franz Manderson, according to his cellmates.
“He had great faith in this guy Franz Manderson. He had been speaking to him on Facebook and he was confident he would be returned to Cayman,” said Leo Morgan, a British inmate locked up alongside Mr. Bodden in the wing of the prison reserved for foreign nationals.
Ben Perschky, another Brit who shared a cell with the Caymanian prisoner, said he had borrowed his cellphone on several occasions to make contact with Cayman and believed he had got clearance to come home.
Mr. Bodden was in the second year of a 100-month sentence for drug offenses at the time of his death, according to his fellow prisoners. Mr. Manderson is currently off island, but Eric Bush, chief officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs, confirmed there had been contact between the Deputy Governor’s office and the prisoner.
He confirmed that officials were negotiating through British embassy representatives in Panama to have Mr. Bodden transferred home to serve the rest of his sentence at Northward Prison.
“We were in the process of considering the issues around Mr. Bodden’s request to be repatriated to see if that could be a possibility,” said Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bodden died before his request could be fulfilled. Now officials are assisting the family in efforts to have his body returned to Cayman and are pushing prison officials in Panama for a proper investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.
“I think the Cayman Islands Government’s responsibility is to ensure there is a full and fair investigation is carried out as to the cause of this death and from the findings of that ensure appropriate corrective action is taken,” Mr. Bush said.
He said an official request had been made for the findings of the Panamanian government investigation to be handed over to the Commissioner of Police in Cayman for review.
The Deputy Governor’s office is currently keeping tabs on 13 Cayman nationals serving time in prisons abroad, including in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Mexico, Jamaica and Trinidad.
Cayman Islands officials have some scope to aid prisoners overseas and have done so on previous occasions – facilitating the return of Kisha Letoya McLean from prison in Mexico to serve the rest of her sentence for drug trafficking in Cayman in 2012. She has since been released.
But the extent of the assistance that can be provided is somewhat limited and dependent on often time-consuming negotiations through the British embassy with foreign governments.
“While we care very much about the welfare of all our citizens, when someone is legally confined in another country, they fall within the relevant legislation and conventions of that country,” said Mr. Bush.
“They can make a request which is considered through the department of Public Prosecutions in consultation with Home Affairs as to whether we are able to house them and allow them to serve the rest of their sentence here. We have to come to a mutual agreement with the country [where they are being held] to allow them to do that. We have done it before.”
He said British embassy officials facilitate communication, but any decision to repatriate Cayman prisoners – usually only considered when Caymanians are locked up in potentially dangerous circumstances – are ultimately sanctioned by the governor.
Cellmates of Mr. Bodden have given firsthand accounts to the Cayman Compass and have sent pictures via cellphone that depict the harrowing scenes inside the La Joya prison were the Caymanian was held from 2012.
They say there are more than 500 prisoners living in a wing built for 180 inmates. They have to buy or build their own beds and sleep seven to a cell or piled up in cramped passageways.
Internet and cellphone access do not appear to be a problem, however, and Mr. Bodden had posted pictures on his Facebook page of daily life inside the prison, including shots of laundry hanging in the narrow corridors running through his cell block.
Mr. Morgan, a British drug dealer locked up for money laundering, sent the Compass grim images of the darker side of life on the cell block, where he says he has seen people shot, stabbed and killed in fights. Access to healthcare and clean water is also a serious problem, as well as abuse from guards. He says he has pressed for improved conditions in talks with embassy officials but without success.
According to several prisoners, there was a riot in the cell block earlier this month after prison officers opened fire with tear gas and shotguns during a routine search. Details of the riot were widely reported in Panamanian media as well as in Canada because of injuries sustained by inmate Dr. Arthur Porter, a high profile figure in that country.
Other prisoners have posted YouTube videos of the squalid and cramped conditions inside the prison.
A 2013 Human Rights report by the U.S. State Department on the Panamanian prison system suggests such problems are rife throughout the country.
“Prison conditions remained harsh and in some cases life threatening. Problems included overcrowding, use of police stations as detention facilities, a shortage of prison guards, and inadequate health care.”
It adds, “Problems included overcrowding, lack of medical services, lack of potable water, inadequate ventilation, lighting, and sewage treatment,” the report says.
The report says there are currently 15,124 inmates locked up in prisons built for half that many. It says La Joya prison, where Mr. Bodden was held, has one first-aid clinic, but it does not have the capacity to deal with serious medical issues. It also points to difficulties and delays in transporting prisoners to outside medical facilities – an issue which cellmates say may have contributed to Mr. Bodden’s death.