Samoa Observer

APIA, Samoa (Aug. 5, 2010) – Something is wrong in the prison system. Already a former senior policeman has been sentenced to a severe jail term for horrific crimes against an inmate purportedly under his care.

Now there are accusations of more and equally indecent behaviour against another police officer relating to the treatment of inmates of Tafaigata Prison.

Complaints against the prison administration are not new. It’s not so long ago that there were bitter complaints about the food at Tafaigata which moved the prison authorities to invite the media in to view a "typical" and perfectly adequate nutritional meal.

Inevitably, perhaps, this was followed by allegations that as soon as the media had left the compound the prison menu reverted to thin soup and rice.

Now prisoners are not angels. They are not men and women of unblemished character distinguished by their selfless devotion to community work and public spiritedness.

They are there because they have committed serious crimes. They can be expected to lie or at least bend the truth to their own advantage.

Neither, however, are they any less human than the rest of us. They should not be treated like animals or possessions as at least one recent court case has proved that they – or some – are and have been.

How can society hope to rehabilitate people to live decent and productive lives if they are subjected to inhuman and indecent treatment in prison?

And this is what the nation would now like to know. What is life really like in our prison system? Does the insight presented by the recent court action mean that cruelty and lawlessness are widespread behind bars? And does the investigation of the latest charges of outrageous crime against another senior officer mean that a clean up of the whole system – or at the very least a searching inquiry - is needed?

As matters stand, we simply don’t know.

The difficulty, in the public perception at least, is that the police are law enforcers, prosecutors and jailers. They arrest the bad guys, bring them to court and, when sentenced, lock them up.

As a result, the police, through no fault of their own, are open to widespread accusations of conflict of interest and lack of transparency. It’s inevitable.

And now that more very serious allegations about the conduct of a senior prison officer have surfaced, we have the police investigating. What the public sees, however, is the police investigating the police.

This isn’t to say that the Police Professional Standards Unit is in some way biased, weak or compromised (if overseas experience is anything to go by, such teams tend to be more rigorous than any court) – but in a small close-knit society such as Samoa there will be doubts in the public mind.

A separation of powers would go some way towards removing those doubts leaving the police to investigate crime and a separate prison service to detain and, one hopes, rehabilitate convicted offenders.

In that way, complaints can be dealt with in a more transparent manner.

In the same way, prisoners can see that they are not out of sight and out of mind as far as the general public are concerned and that there is an independent body that can oversee their proper care and attention. At least that’s the theory – and to make it reality a start needs to be made somewhere.

Part of the difficulty is that there is little political enthusiasm or even support for prison reform. There are no votes in it.

But one might think there would be public support for a system that rehabilitates particularly young offenders who deserve a second chance at life.

For without it, prison becomes a training ground, a finishing school that turns young offenders into hardened, more bitter and more expert offenders who know no other way of life.

Far too often, a young person’s single mistake can lead to a life of crime.

This doesn’t in any way suggest that jail should be "easy time". There is and should be a punishment element but by itself that one element will not help society to combat crime.

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