Cayman prison ‘cakewalk’ compared to Panama

Locals locked up in Panama speak out after death of Mark Bodden

A Caymanian who spent two months in jail in Panama has told of his horrifying ordeal and the difference between doing time in Northward Prison in Cayman, which he says is a “cakewalk” by comparison. 

Phillip Rose was speaking after the death of fellow Caymanian Mark Bodden on Aug. 18 in the notorious La Joya prison in Panama. Mr. Rose, 48, spent two months in the same Panamanian prison awaiting extradition back to Cayman, where he is now serving a 14-year sentence. He says the scenes he witnessed in Panama have made him realize that Cayman’s prison is not so tough. 

“Cayman is like a halfway house. I do not call it a prison. I can sleep with my eyes closed and not have to sometimes worry … Being inside of Cayman’s Northward Prison is a cakewalk compared to life in a Panamanian jail,” he said. 

Frederick Henkis, another prisoner serving time in Panama, also contacted the Cayman Compass to tell of the harsh conditions in the neighboring La Joyita prison where he has been locked up since 2009 on drug charges. 

He said he heard about Mr. Bodden’s death through the prison grapevine, 

“It was very hurtful to hear that because we are the only two Caymanians out here. Every day I see people dying, chopped up with a machete, shot, it’s not a pretty place to be.” 

He said he had been trying since 2011 to be repatriated back to Cayman. But despite lengthy discussions with officials in Cayman, nothing has materialized and he is now resigned to serving out the final 20 months of his 80-month sentence in Panama. 

He says money is one of the biggest problems because prisoners have to pay for everything from bedding to medication to paying off guards to allow them exercise time.  

“Sometimes there is no water for several days. I’ve been trying to get repatriated but nothing has happened.” 

Mr. Rose was able to be transferred to Cayman more quickly because he was wanted by police for crimes committed in the territory, not in Panama. He was arrested and held in the Central American country only until he could be transferred back to face sentence and serve his time in Cayman. Transfers involving prisoners convicted abroad are more complex. 

Mr. Rose said there is no perfect prison, but compared to Panama. Cayman is not so bad. 

“The guys they call bad men here are no bad men in Cayman. I know bad men; I have lived all over the world and met bad men,” he said. 

“I survived in Panama jail by praying and God’s people fasting here in Cayman for me. Thank God I had money coming to me,” he added. 

According to Mr. Rose, if you get locked up in Panama make sure you have money and contacts at home because everything is confiscated. “If you don’t have money, dog eat your supper,” he said. 

“At Northward we have a canteen system, you work and they pay you every week depending on the skill job you do. Meals are provided or some prisoners get to cook their own meals. …They also provide clothing and food. You do have people that do not want to work,” he said. 

Mr. Rose said the prison even encourages compulsory savings so when you walk out there is something to take with you. 

“Basically, our prison system is no comparison to Panama prison. You sleep on cement beds or in hammocks there, wear your street clothes, pay to get your clothes washed and other services you might need.” 

In Cayman, he said, he had no problems with the guards. “I can’t blame the people that have me locked up for my problems, I get treated OK and I am not complaining.” 

Mr. Rose said the reason he wanted to get back to Cayman from Panama so quickly was because he was sick.  

“They lock you up in the evening and it’s morning before they come back to check on you. I suffered with a lot of anxiety and claustrophobia, but no matter how much I called, no one showed up. Over there it is no one to call but God,” he said. 

Mark Bodden, who was in the same La Joya prison, died after apparently suffering a fall from a makeshift bed. Cellmates, including an inmate doctor, told the Compass their calls for assistance were ignored and he did not get medical attention until nearly 12 hours after the fall. 

In Cayman, by contrast, Mr. Rosa says there is a guard on duty. If he is feeling bad, he calls the office or officers, but in Panama there is no one to call. 

“I thank God for Cayman. I am able to serve out my sentence here.” 

Mr. Rose said his only trip back to Panama would be for a visit. 

Cayman Compass reporter James Whittaker contributed to this article. 

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  1. As the cost of keeping a prisoner in HMP Northward is so high it might be worthwhile to explore the possibility of sending them to some other location where the government might be able to pay significantly less money. We don’t want to see another situation like what happened to Mark Bodden but at the same time the government might be able to find another location that can provide prison services for significantly less money than what is being spent to run HMP Northward.

  2. Prison should never be referred to as a cakewalk. It should be a miserable unpleasant place that nobody wants to go to once, much less make return visits. We should adopt some of the features of international prisons and make prisoners pay for certain commodities. Panama is not the only country where this happens. If you were a legitimately employed person on the outside you would have to pay for food, rent, electricity and other things. Why should being in prison be any different? Especially, if they already work, earn money and have a savings account? These are our tax dollars, they get to walk out and take with them. That’s ridiculous. Especially in light of the tremendous financial burden that each prisoner represents. If their families are willing to send money for their care and upkeep abroad; they ought to do so here.