Government of Sint Maarten ** Minister Richardson & UNOPS gives detailed presentation to Parliament **
Philipsburg – Today, Wednesday, January 25, 2023, the Honorable Minister of Justice Anna E. Richardson attended an urgent public meeting of Parliament to discuss the flow and managing of the inmates at the Point Blanche Prison and House of Detention. In attendance together with the Minister, were Prison Director Steven Carty, Senior Policy Advisor Johishi Romney, Policy Advisor Demi Bute and representatives of UNOPS currently in Sint Maarten with the purpose of stakeholder engagement and logistical preparations for the first phase of the new prison project. During the meeting, Minister Richardson took the opportunity to render a detailed presentation on the developments surrounding the prison facility and invited the representatives of UNOPS to present an update on their current mission.
Minister Richardson began her presentation outlining the main challenges of the 33-year-old prison facility and addressing the various points raised by the Inmate Association via media reports. She told the members of Parliament that for security reasons, the Ministry is not always at liberty to disclose information surrounding the facility so this can lead to persons drawing the wrong conclusion concerning the developments at the prison.
The Minister explained that the Point Blanche prison has a capacity for 80 males and 6 females. The cells which are all occupied, hold a maximum of two inmates per cell to be in compliance with the international and European standards regarding the advised requirements of living space (m2) per inmate as well as to prevent overcrowding. She stated that the current facility built in 1990 was considerably damaged by the passage of category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, directly impacting the buildings, equipment as well as the prison staff and inmates. This led to some of the high-risk inmates being transferred to other prisons within the Kingdom for security reasons. “Although repairs were made to the damaged infrastructure since then, the lack of structural maintenance to the facility for many years has now made the need for a new prison structure even more pressing,” Minister Richardson stated.
During the presentation, Minister Richardson delved into the positive developments executed thus far to tackle these challenges. She explained that the first step was to establish a stable and experienced prison management team and prison director that was capable to take on these obstacles. Since 2020, there has also been increased cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK) which has led to providing financial and technical support for the improvements needed within the prison. Minister Richardson expressed that over the past two years, there have been infrastructural improvements, increased rehabilitation programs, safety and security enhancements, a certified prison guard training and more.
In terms of infrastructural improvements, over the past months, the spaces were renovated together with the inmates. Some of these spaces include the gym facility, the computer room, airspaces, the laundry room and central housing area, cells, barber shop, music room and sewing room. Pictures were displayed of these renovations during the Parliament meeting.
The overall day-time program for the inmates has been met with some developments and enhancements. This includes but is not limited to reintroducing educational and sport programs as well as expanding the labor possibilities for the inmates. The programs include the Prison Education Program, Family fun days, sewing classes, and increased sports and labor activities. Currently, the educational services are being tendered for 2023-2025, as such, Minister Richardson encourages those who are part of the program to continue and other inmates to join once the program resumes.
It is also the goal to intensify cooperation with Probation services to provide a more individualized rehabilitation program for the individual inmate that will positively contribute to the inmates’ reintegration. In addition, labor opportunities have increased with inmates now gaining the opportunity to work in the kitchen, the library, or on the cleaning or maintenance team. The prison’s intention in 2023 is to increase the number of inmates that can participate in such activities as well as to create the opportunity for inmates to work outside the prison walls on projects.
Safety and Security
The overall safety and security of the facility have also been tackled over the last couple of months with the installation of new heavy-duty cell locks, a fire alarm system, and a new entrance gate. In addition, a new electronic monitoring provider (Buddi) was also selected and has gone into effect as of February 1, 2022. This new provider is fully operational and works well. In 2023, it is also the prison’s intention to further enhance the safety and security systems such as detection ports, access scanners, perimeter security and more.
Over the course of years, the prison has dealt with many challenges in regard to structural staff shortage, which in turn leads to a higher workload resulting in an increase in the number of sick reports and absenteeism. In order to break this vicious cycle, Minister Richardson stated that it was necessary to produce data regarding this phenomenon to understand the trends surrounding absenteeism.
Based on the analysis carried out, only an estimated amount of 50% of the staff are deployable due to sick leave or persons taking up other functions or transferred to other departments within the Ministry of Justice or the government. This creates a strain on the organization, however, with the current placement process underway, these matters will be addressed. To reduce the high percentage of sick leave in the prison, the decision was made to collaborate with MedWork. MedWork’s efforts are aimed at ensuring that prison staff can be put back to work as quickly and responsibly as possible.
Prison guard training
A positive development in the area of personnel is the prison guard training program that began in September 2022, in cooperation with the Dutch Custodial Agency in the Netherlands (DJI). All prison guards have been given the opportunity to join the training that covers different areas: integrity, self-defense, security, aggression regulation, prison law and more. This is a great step that the ministry is immensely proud of as it has been more than a decade since the prison guards have gotten the opportunity to enhance their skills and develop their knowledge in their field of profession.
Leave and Conditional Release
Another matter that was addressed by the Minister is that every inmate has the opportunity to submit a formal request for a ‘leave of absence’ to the prison director. Once a request has been submitted formally, an assessment is done about the possible safety risks involved in granting the ‘leave of absence’. This regards not only potential safety risks for the community and the prison guards, but also for the inmate him- or herself. Based on the assessment, a formal decision is made by the Ministry of Justice.
In terms of granting conditional release (voorwaardelijke invrijheidsstelling – VI), it is relevant to state that inmates may be eligible for VI after they’ve served two-thirds of their detention sentence, however, a verdict must be irrevocable. An inmate does not automatically have a right to be released on early VI with an ankle bracelet. The behavior of an inmate during detention is an important factor in the decision-making about VI. For the year 2023, there are 5 inmates that will be eligible for conditional release.
In terms of medical care of the inmates, the well-being of all inmates is of great importance to the Ministry of Justice, and it is the prison staff’s duty to attend to all inmates with medical inquiries. The statement made in the media that medical staff is not on call to assist during “off-the-clock” emergencies is incorrect. The prison’s medical staff is on call 24/7 and responds to emergencies in the promptest manner. In terms of the medical intake and screening, the first assessment is carried out within the first 24 hours of arrival followed by an in-depth assessment within 30 days. The in-depth medical assessment includes a visual observation, a general assessment of medical history, a mental health assessment, and a blood test which generally includes an HIV screening.
Following Minister Richardson’s detailed presentation on the developments at the prison, she welcomed Mr. William Squier Gonzalez, currently leading the UNOPS mission on Sint Maarten to provide an update on the developments surrounding the new Rule of Law Facility prison project. Gonzalez’s presentation provided information on the plan of action, projected timelines and stakeholder engagement agenda. The mission ends on January 27, 2023, after laying the groundwork for the establishment of a continued presence in Sint Maarten.
Minister Richardson expressed that management of the prison will be focusing on the following areas this year. This will include the refurbishing of the recreational room, an addition of a small kitchen area, expansion of the rehabilitation and reintegration programs, and improvement of the overall medical and forensic care. The meeting ended with questions posed by the members of Parliament to be answered by the Minister during the following meeting surrounding the prison.
“Since becoming Minister of Justice, my focus has been on our detention system and on making the necessary improvements to our prison. As I have in the past, and have done today, I will continue to update Parliament and the people of Sint Maarten of the steady progress that is being made in our detention system. Despite claims to the contrary, I have shown that a lot of things have changed in the Point Blanch prison for the better. The false claims made have no basis in fact. I have read that “the Minister of Justice is allowing the situation at the prison to fester”, that “the situation in the prison is deteriorating”, that I have been asked to “address the situation at the prison for the past two years, but things seem to be getting worse”, that “human rights are being violated”, “that events at the prison are a clear indication that nothing has really improved,” and I can go on.
“These kinds of statements capture the headlines by creating a false narrative of inaction from this Minister, but this could not be any further from the truth. The idea of using the Point Blanche prison as a political tool is a very dangerous one as Parliamentarians run the serious risk of riling up those inmates who have been exhibiting poor behavior, as they may feel strengthened or emboldened by your words. This jeopardizes not only the safety of the prison’s employees, but also other prisoners. As such, I ask that you consider this carefully.
“I understand the political season that we are in and that there are powers who may not be interested in recognizing the positive strides that we are making or who do not want to see a new prison built for that matter. I am sorry to disappoint all who are seeking for us to fail, but my team and I will continue on this positive path,” stated Minister Richardson.
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