PHILIPSBURG–The Pointe Blanche Inmates Association, with lawyers Sjamira Roseburg and Shaira Bommel as their legal representatives, took Government to Court on Tuesday because the safety of inmates at Pointe Blanche prison cannot be guaranteed and the living conditions are considered terrible. At the end of the hearing the Judge urged Government to make a plan of action with a timeline to remedy the “inhumane” situation before March 17.
The Inmates Association, represented by President Antonio Joseph, Vice-President Aliston Fleming, Secretary Nickerson Boireau and Treasurer Nestor Sanchez, filed an injunction against Government to force it to make changes fast.
Referring to a number of violent incidents within the prison’s confines, the inmates stated they are fearing for their lives. Prison safety, however, is only one of a list of 15 grievances submitted to the Judge.
These range from terrible living conditions, the lack of education and rehabilitation programmes, no recreation, to a great lack of staff. All in all “the prison is badly lacking the most important things in order for the prison to function properly,” Roseburg stated.
Many promises were made based on inmates’ concerns, without any changes to improve the situation, which forced the Inmates Association to file an injunction at the Court of First Instance in which they also requested the Court to impose penalties in case of non-compliance.
Government lawyer and Dean of St. Maarten Bar Association Aernout Kraaijeveld acknowledged that Pointe Blanche Prison is in crisis. “Parties agree that something needs to be done about the circumstances in Pointe Blanche Prison. The situation is precarious,” he said.
According to Kraaijeveld, Government stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Justice, the Law Enforcement Council, the Police Force of St. Maarten and the unions are making plans to remedy the situation.
After Prison Director Edward Rohan was sent on leave of absence for three months, a taskforce has been formed consisting of the Police, the Prosecutor’s Officer, the Court of Guardianship and the Parole Board, which is to function like a Supervisory Board.
Besides, extra manpower has been made available at the Justice Ministry to work fulltime on the improvement of the prison situation, where it concerns human resources, financing and technique. Other ministries, such as Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI, are also involved, Kraaijeveld explained.
He said that containers with material from a penitentiary institution in Tilburg, the Netherlands, have arrived with equipment, such as scanners and beds. “But first the situation needs to be normalised,” said Kraaijeveld.
To alleviate the lack of cells, discussions have started to use container cells from Bonaire. The project to house juvenile delinquents in the container cells would cost 500,000 euros, the lawyer said.
“A request had been filed for assistance from the Netherlands. The request has been granted and the Dutch Marines are supporting the organisations in St. Maarten,” said Kraaijeveld. He stated that prison guards are currently in training at the Justice Academy and that several investigations have been launched to investigate the problems concerning the smuggling of goods into prison.
According to the Government lawyer, the problems inside the prison are not caused by a shortage in staff. He denied that the prison was understaffed with a formation of 99, with 107 persons on the payroll. “Sick leave is too high and must and shall be reduced.”
Deadlines and damages
Kraaijeveld said that Minister of Justice Rafael Boasman was willing to sit around the table with the Inmates Association. Talks were held with their legal representative on Monday. But instead of “open consultations” the Inmates Association submitted “crackling hard” deadlines and damages.
The Government lawyer said the Association was not in a position to file for damages and should be declared inadmissible in this case, he said in rejecting all claims.
Kraaijeveld said the Law Enforcement Council, which published a highly critical report about the prison last Friday, was “optimistic” about the plans for improvement.
The Inmates Association, their lawyers, and also the Judge did not seem to share the optimism. Attorney Roseburg said that critical reports about the prison were published since 2007, but Friday’s Law Enforcement Council’s report is no less critical.
Despite recommendations by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture CPT and the Law Enforcement Council there are still “serious shortcomings,” Roseburg said.
The prison currently detains 115 men and four women, as well as nine persons who were transferred to the cells at the Police Station in Philipsburg.
“Your honour, don’t get me wrong. Jail is jail and no paradise. When you commit the crime you have to do your time, but detainees also have the right to a humane existence,” Roseburg said in stating that a prison should provide an acceptable and humane living environment to prisoners.
For more than two years this is not the case in Pointe Blanche, which constitutes a violation of human rights. Therefore, inmates should be entitled to a ten per cent reduction on their sentences, Roseburg claimed.
A civil Judge may very well not be entitled to grant the requested reduction, but the Judge did say that Government is violating the law where it concerns the detention of convicts.
Citing from the Law Enforcement Council’s conclusion in its recent report, the Judge said serious shortcomings were noted. The Council has been holding prison inspections since 2013 and has made recommendations since then. Despite these recommendations, the second phase of prison renovations has been halted for a long period of time. Also at the end of 2016, the Council noted insufficient progress. The prison does not meet international standards and there is no prospect of improvement, the Council said.
Without dismissing the other grievances as luxury problems, the Judge said that safety is the prison’s number-one priority. The Judge urged Government to draft a plan of action with a timeline. The plan needs to include concrete steps to be taken to improve the situation.
“Take control and make a commitment,” the Judge told Head of the Justice Affairs Department at the Ministry of Justice Vidjaj Jusia and Senior Policy Advisor Leo Dijkstra. “Saying that you are working on it is not enough,” the Judge said. Parties will meet again on Friday, March 17, to continue the deliberations.