Steven Barrett, the interim prisons director, speaks to members of the media at a press briefing on Thursday at his office in Northward prison. - Photo: Brent Fuller

After 30 years in the Scottish prisons service and another two spent running the Turks and Caicos Islands prisons, interim Cayman Islands Prison Service Director Steven Barrett offered a direct assessment of the local jail Thursday.

“Let’s be very blunt, the facilities built here are not fit for purpose,” Mr. Barrett said during an interview with members of the press in his new office.

This statement was immediately followed by the good news: “The Cayman Islands government has been extremely acknowledging and accepting of that fact,” he said.

Mr. Barrett, 55, said additional accommodations for prisoners at Her Majesty’s Prison, Northward in Bodden Town have been constructed in a seemingly ad hoc fashion over the past decade or so, allowing the adult men’s prison holding capacity to go from 135 inmates to 213.

However, as of this week, there were still more prisoners than Northward could accommodate, forcing at least one inmate to stay temporarily at the police jail in Fairbanks. Mr. Barrett said, if worse comes to worse, there are four police cells for the prison service’s emergency use at the Royal Cayman Islands Police detention facility.

That is not ideal, but at the moment, the veteran Scottish prisons manager said it is better than the alternative.

“We have a situation where the hotel is full,” Mr. Barrett said. “What I don’t want to do is be in a situation where people are sleeping on the floor without a bed.”

Mr. Barrett was brought in by the U.K. government on an interim six-month contract following the departure of former Cayman prisons director Neil Lavis late last year.

Mr. Barrett started at the prisons service on Feb. 19 and said Thursday that he would like to apply for the full-time job to help create a vision for the future development of the local prisons service.

The vision generally needed to include better planning for prison facilities, he said.

“The responsible approach to take would be to say, ‘what do you want your prison service to look like? How are we going to be sure in terms of good government, that the services we’re providing meet the need?’” he said. “These are discussions that need to be had before any architect puts pen to paper.

“Otherwise we’re going to be building annexes onto buildings that weren’t meant for them.”

The Cayman Islands prisons service is not exactly starting from scratch. Mr. Barrett said he’s been encouraged by a number of things since his arrival.

First, he said, former prisons director Mr. Lavis did excellent work in setting up prison programs and rehabilitative services.

Cayman essentially has a well-trained, capable prison staff and a community that is ready and willing to help, Mr. Barrett said.

“What we do have here is a real appetite among the community-based partners to come and be involved with us,” he said.

This is a key difference from the interim prisons director’s previous experience in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“The prison in TCI is so impoverished environmentally to the people that are held there and the people who work there,” Mr. Barrett said. “The [Turks and Caicos] prison is in a real mess.”

As part of the positive new working environment, he said he would like to test out the Cayman business community’s willingness to assist the prisons service in perhaps different ways than it has participated in the past.

For instance, Mr. Barrett gave examples from the Scottish prisons service where inmates were not just brought to rehabilitative classes to learn “skills” such as woodworking or plumbing, but were used to perform actual jobs such as telemarketing or tool repair for local companies that needed the labor.

The arrangement provided labor for the business, and employable skills for the prisoners, he said.

At this stage, Mr. Barrett said, it is just one idea that needs further discussion.

The companies, and inmates, participating in such a scheme would have to be properly vetted, but he said it is an example of how local community partnerships can help get people out of jail cells and back into meaningful work.

The majority of the more than $15 million the prisons service spends each year is focused much more on security and good order than it is on rehabilitative efforts for prisoners, Mr. Barrett said.

“Yet there’s a massive expectation on what the prison should be doing regarding rehabilitation,” he said.

Despite that, Cayman does not have a recent, reliable estimate of how many of its incarcerated residents have previously offended.

This reoffending rate, often called the recidivism rate, was estimated at 70 percent among Northward Prisoners a few years ago. However, “data gaps” in tracking prisoners upon their release and in tracking deportees has made the information somewhat unreliable, Mr. Barrett said.

“So there are some big issues that need to be addressed here … but there are some really positive signs as well,” he said.

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.