Four male prisoners were transferred on Sunday to George Town’s Immigration Detention Centre at Fairbanks, a low-security facility that houses male and female migrants who have requested asylum in the Cayman Islands.

The plan to move prisoners from overcrowded jails to the immigration facility was first made public in July, when Prisons Director Steven Barrett said “suitably selected” prisoners from Northward would be considered for transfer.

On Monday, the Prison Service reiterated the goal to “alleviate capacity constraints that have impacted Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Northward” through the use of the immigration center. The new prison ward there will be known as the Enhanced Reintegration Unit.

“The unit began initial operations earlier this month and will be able to house up to 21 low-risk prisoners,” a Prison Service statement said, adding that most prisoners there will be working at community placements during daytime, business hours.

“The necessary security measures and protocols have been implemented in order to make the facility suitable for inmates, while ensuring the privacy and safety of the migrants isn’t compromised.

“Prison operations at the IDC [Immigration Detention Centre] will function as normal, such as daily meal times, access to recreational and hygiene facilities, while coordinating schedules around the group of migrants that are currently housed at the facility.”

Since the July 2018 announcement, work has been under way to retrofit the facility for prison purposes. While the center is managed by the Prison Service, it has not previously been categorized as a prison and was rather considered a short-term facility for immigration purposes.

In a December letter from Mr. Barrett to the Human Rights Commission, he said, “There is conversion work being carried out at the facility to provide a separate section of the building for convicted low-risk prisoners. The work in this area does not in any way impact upon the living quarters of the detainees.”

The Prison Service clarified Monday that an internal dividing fence will be used to keep migrants, including a female migrant, separate from prisoners.

Migrants detainees at the center confirmed that prisoners were being kept separate from them in another dormitory.

In the same letter, Mr. Barrett recognized ongoing hygienic complaints at the facility.

“Conditions at the IDC are not as I would like and the facility as a whole is in urgent need of significant upgrading. I have had the facility deep cleaned and staff deployed to the IDC are required to ensure that basic housekeeping by detainees is carried out daily,” he wrote.

The Cayman Compass has made multiple requests to tour the facility over the past year, to independently confirm conditions inside the center, but access has not been granted.

In July 2018, hygienic concerns flagged by the Human Rights Commission raised concern that the detention facility was nearing “uninhabitable” status. The revelation came just weeks after the Ministry of Home Affairs announced the center would be used as an overflow facility for male prisoners from Northward.

Following an inspection of the center, Human Rights Commission Chairman James Austin-Smith highlighted poor hygiene, mold, missing shower heads and lack of maintenance in bathroom areas. In the kitchen, he noted “completely unhygienic fridges/freezers and cooking areas (including rotten food) with infestation of flies.”

A response from Mr. Barrett, issued the same week, indicated immediate action would be taken.

“I am extremely disappointed at the conditions encountered within the restroom areas of this facility. I have directed a number of immediate responses. This will include engaging a local plumbing contractor to affect repairs to all malfunctioning mixing valves on showers and to repair malfunctioning toilets,” Mr. Barrett wrote in his July response.

“It should also be noted that the detainees have a responsibility to ensure their environment is clean; clearly they have not done this.”

Regarding the kitchen situation, he wrote, “The issues highlighted within the kitchen are unacceptable. Food storage and handling areas will be deep cleaned and a programme of hygiene inspections commenced.”

A follow-up letter submitted to the Prison Service from the Human Rights Commission in December, however, indicated that the hygienic concerns at the facility continued “as the centre is currently under repair” and that the facility had a rat problem.

Mr. Barrett recognized that “the surrounding area of the IDC is prone to rat infestation and where we can, we take steps to address the issue,” adding that the Department of Environmental Health would be placing rat traps.

The facility was briefly uninhabited last year, through August and part of September, after migrants, many of whom had been detained in the facility for one to two years, were transferred off site to community housing under a supervised release program.

After a migrant boat was intercepted in Cayman Brac in September, however, the facility was reopened for immigrant detention. Those detainees continue to be held there.

During the time the facility was uninhabited, a government spokesperson said work was completed on the building to render it suitable for prison purposes.

The center has a history of escapes, with migrants jumping the barbed wire fencing and escaping into the surrounding wetlands. The most recent escape occurred in July 2017. The man was apprehended by police and convicted to serve three months in Northward.

The Prison Service gave reassurances that use of the facility would not compromise public safety.

“[Prison Service] officials assure the public that the transfer of inmates to the IDC will in no way impact the Department’s statutory obligations or compromise safety,” the Prison Service said Monday.

“The [Prison Service] will continue to maintain the welfare and security of those entrusted in their care, as well as Prison Service staff and members of the public.”

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.