A small group of inmates, ranging in age from 22 to 59 and from all walks of life, gathered in the chapel at Northward Prison on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. There was no religious service scheduled. Instead they were there to describe what life is like inside the prison walls and how they think crime can be reduced in the Cayman Islands.
The inmates, five representatives of the prisoners council, were frank and judicious in their assessments of life in Cayman’s male-only prison as they spoke to members of the media on April 26. They agreed that while life at Northward is not as bad as it could be, there are many aspects of the prison desperately in need of improving.
The ways in which the prison has improved over the years – and the ways it still needs to change – were highlighted during an all-access tour of the prison for the media.
The Cayman Islands Prison Service, which observed its 35-year anniversary last week, invited the media for a behind-the-scenes look at work and life at Northward, to meet with representatives of the prisoners council, and to talk to many other inmates in the various wings of the prison.
“You’ll see it’s not a hotel,” Prisons Director Neil Lavis said. “You’ll see the conditions we are holding people in.”
“There’s nothing here that we want to hide,” Mr. Lavis added. “But bear in mind, we’ve not had any additional funding for a long period of time.”
The Prison Service is grappling with many challenges. The prison is old, and parts of it have been condemned. There’s a shortage of staff, and the prison is at a tipping point in terms of capacity. It currently has 211 inmates – two fewer than the “absolute maximum” capacity.
“The staff here every day manage under extremely difficult circumstances sometimes,” Mr. Lavis said, which often goes unacknowledged by the community. “Sometimes, we’re seen as forgotten.”
That sentiment is echoed by many of the inmates.
“I personally feel one of the biggest challenges, particularly to Caymanian inmates, is that the community needs to get behind the prison,” said inmate Michael Levitt. “We need more support from the community, and even organizations like the Chamber of Commerce should be working with the prison to see how they can help inmates, because otherwise the circle of crime is going to continue, and it’s going to get worse, not better.”
On the inside
Levitt and other members of the prisoners council who spoke to the media, said that in some ways, life at Northward Prison is better than they had expected, and not at all like the violent depictions of prison one sees in TV shows and movies.
The inmates described their daily routine: They wake up in a dimly lit, tiny cell, where the air is hot and stale. Many live in a building that has been condemned. Breakfast is often a piece of bread and cheese; lunch and dinner typically include chicken or some sort of fish. The kitchen is currently being remodeled, though, and Levitt said the quality of the food is likely to improve when the new kitchen opens.
Contact with friends and family is limited; visitation is allowed only one half-hour a week.
As in the outside world, prisoners take classes, read, and do whatever other activity they can with the aim of self-improvement and to keep some semblance of sanity and control in a place where, prisoners say, the most difficult thing is simply coping with the loss of freedom.
That loss though, is also an opportunity for reflection, some inmates said.
“It’s given me time for pause, to actually pause at this late stage in my life and say, ‘where did it go wrong?’” Levitt said. “What can I do to ensure that it doesn’t happen, what are the things I need to do to change?”
Inmate Christopher Myles agreed, saying that being at Northward “gives you time to look at the mistakes you made in life and try to be a different person.”
Myles said he has taken advantage of the prison’s behavior modification programs, and the National Drug Council’s prison programs, as well as computer classes and some trade classes.
He wishes there were more classes – staffing shortages mean that many vocational classes are sporadic, if offered at all, but “right now, we just have to work with what we have.”
In the wings
Life at Northward varies considerably from wing to wing.
Those who live in F wing – the enhanced wing – such as Levitt, enjoy more freedom of movement and have access to their own kitchen where they can prepare their own meals. The cells are larger and brighter, and each has its own small TV set.
The wing feels more like a dormitory than a prison wing and is, essentially, the last stop for prisoners before going home. Inmates have earned their place there through good behavior and work.
The high-risk unit, at the top of D wing, is the opposite. There, prisoners are confined to their individual cells for 23 hours a day, let out one at a time for one hour to shower and exercise. The cage-like cells are covered with heavy tarps – prisoners peek through narrow slots in the doors and have limited interaction with other human beings.
In a 2015 report, prison inspectors described the environment of the unit as “bleak and oppressive” and its purpose “unclear.”
Prisoners in B wing say they do not have it much better than those in the high-risk unit, referring to their wing as “Gaza.”
B wing is the most populated block, housing 60 prisoners. The building that houses B wing has had two fires and has been condemned. Structural engineers say it should be torn down, according to prison officials.
Tensions are high in the wing, where prisoners escape the confines of their scorching cells to congregate in a narrow, crowded hallway.
They say they feel the impact of the limited vocational programs most acutely. One B wing prisoner said it is im
possible to think positively when he feels like he has nothing productive to do, and he feels like a caged animal.
Mr. Lavis said it is important to highlight the living conditions because “there is a distinct link between how people are treated, what the conditions are, the environment they are in, to how they turn out.”
“I think we can all get that if you work in an office that’s bright and clean and airy and light, you feel a lot better than if you’re working in a very dark and miserable place, and some of these cells here are dark and miserable,” Mr. Lavis said.
He said that while some in the community may say such conditions are exactly what prisoners deserve, it is vital to treat people decently in order to break the cycle of offending.
“We’re really pushing the rehabilitation agenda with things like restorative justice,” Mr. Lavis said. “We’re trying to get the workshops open, we’re trying to make prisoners have a productive day … give them purpose in their life, and we’ll continue to do that going forward.”