Authorities and inmates agree to negotiations proposed by judge

Authorities and inmates agree to  negotiations proposed by judge

Leaving the Courthouse on Friday afternoon are attorney Aernout Kraaijeveld of Gibson and Associates, representing Government, with (behind him, from left) Ministry of Justice Senior Policy Advisor Johishi Romney, Pointe Blanche prison director Steven Carty and Luis Hurtault, Communications Advisor to Minister of Justice Anna Richardson

 By Jacqueline Hooftman

PHILIPSBURG--The Pointe Blanche Inmates Association is accusing the prison management of violating its own house rules. The prisoners, in turn, are accused of having “alternative motives” for their now-month-long strike. Despite increasing polarisation in the courtroom on Friday afternoon, the parties agreed on the judge’s proposal to discuss the ongoing issues in the prison on Monday.

  “It is commendable that you are willing to discuss a way forward,” the judge told three men in prison suits who together form the board of the Inmates Association. For more than a month since the start of the general strike at the prison on January 6, the prisoners, through their lawyer Sjamira Roseburg, had requested that Minister of Justice Anna Richardson and her staff visit the prison to discuss the situation. Their request was not heeded.

  In consultation with attorney Roseburg, the prisoners decided in the second week of February to file summary proceedings against country St. Maarten. A petition to that effect was filed on February 15. The day before, Roseburg had received an invitation from Ministry of Justice Head of Judicial Affairs Ramona Ismail to discuss the terms of the strike on behalf of the Inmates Association. The lawyer did not respond to the email.

  “Even if the invitation came late, it is there,” the judge noted, addressing Roseburg. “Why didn’t you respond to the email?” The lawyer replied that the Inmates Association was busy with the petition and that they strongly feel that their grievances are not being taken seriously.

  The prisoners put down work in the prison since the first week of January. They do not deliver meals, do no cleaning, do no maintenance and do not enter the sewing room to make prison uniforms and blue shirts for the police. In a January 5, 2023, letter to the editor of The Daily Herald the inmates addressed their concerns, stating that the situation in prison is unsafe, first and foremost due to a lack of emergency medical care and a minimal number of guards to respond to emergency situations.

  The Ministry of Justice has the impression that the strike is “not at all for the reasons mentioned,” said attorney Aernout Kraaijeveld, representing Government. “The strike is just a stick to strike with. In reality, the prisoners are after early and conditional release (VI).”

  He disputes that all 80 male and 7 female detainees support the strike. The Inmates Association presented the judge with a list of 87 signatures of detainees on Friday afternoon. “We also have a list of names, 13 in total,” said Kraaijeveld. “These are prisoners who want to work. They have admitted to guards that they are not behind the strike.”

  The names of the ship-jumpers cannot be disclosed, the attorney said. “If the Inmates Association knows who they are, these inmates are in danger. They were pressured to sign the other list.”

  According to the government lawyer, the strike has led to “disturbances in the prison.” On the instructions of prison director Steven Carty, the detainees were collectively placed in a 24-hour lockdown on Wednesday, February 8.

  “We have been requested by email to find out the reason for this lockdown and to provide us with the relevant documents. However, to date we have not heard or received anything,” said Roseburg on behalf of the Inmates Association.

  The lockdown was maintained by the prison’s management for the legal maximum of three days, through Saturday, February 11. On February 12, detainees were able to receive family visits again.

  The judge turned to prison warden Carty. “What happened on February 8 that you thought it necessary to keep all the prisoners in their cells?”

 Carty hesitated. He got up from his chair next to attorney Kraaijeveld and leaned over a pile of documents on the table in front of them, as if searching for the answer to the question.

 The judge: “Mr. Carty, as the warden of the prison, you know what’s going on there, don’t you?”

 Carty replied that the detainees did not want to go back to their cells after yard time.

  According to lawyer Kraaijeveld, there was a group uprising. Barricades are said to have been erected and fires ignited, resulting in smoke development. Prison guards are said to have been threatened.

 “The prisoners are to blame for their own situation,” Kraaijeveld concluded.

  Carty admitted he had not been on the island on February 8. He said he had ordered total lockdown after consulting with the prison management team.

  “Your Honour, I will outline for you the actual situation,” Roseburg said on behalf of the detainees. “On February 8, there was only a single guard working the prison [Mrs. Williams – Ed.] and a feud broke out. The detainees tried in vain to get the attention of the guard. Consequently, they themselves had to put an end to the fight. A number of members of the Inmates Association were injured.”

  Proper procedures must be followed for the imposition of punitive measures, Roseburg stressed. “A total lockdown cannot and should not just happen. Furthermore, the extension of sanctions must be done in writing. The country has never recorded the extension in writing. The detainees have been locked in their cells for 24 hours for four days without any motivation or written order.”

  The lawyer asked where the photos of the alleged arson are. “And where is the evidence that prison guards have been threatened? If so, they would certainly have reported this. Or not? The fact is that there was only one female prison guard. This was also the case on February 1. And on February 4, the nurse on duty was not available. A detainee with seizures received no help. The day before yesterday [February 15] it took 10 hours for the doctor to come for an emergency, for a detainee with injuries.”

  According to the Inmates Association, the prison management violates its own house rules. “There should be six to eight guards per shift,” said Roseburg, who referred to the public meeting of Parliament with Minister of Justice Anna Richardson, who told Members of Parliament that the prison employs 24 guards.

 “Therefore, it should be possible to schedule six guards per eight-hour shift,” the lawyer argued. “Maybe management does deploy six guards per shift, but apparently not all show up. Usually 1, 2, and if we are lucky, there are 3 or 4 guards per shift.”

  According to Roseburg, the majority of prison guards work not eight, but 12 hours per shift. “The understaffing of staff jeopardises the safety of detainees on a daily basis,” she concluded.

  Speaking for the government, attorney Kraaijeveld does not deny that there is a shortage of prison guards as a result of high absenteeism, but it can be concluded on the basis of the Justice Minister’s presentation in Parliament that the country is working hard on solutions, he said. He disputes that detainees are still being held in custody at the moment.

  “On Monday, February 13, 2023, due to new disturbances, there was a new lock-down that did not last more than a day,” Kraaijeveld said. “This lockdown was not for the entire prison. The disturbances only took place in a corridor, where the detainees refused to go back to the cells. Police assistance was required. That corridor was then enclosed for a day to guarantee peace.”

  According to the attorney, there is no longer any basis for the Inmates Association’s claim to “immediately cease all-day detention of detainees.” The government disputes that detainees who needed medical help – whether urgent or otherwise – were denied this help or it was not provided in a timely manner.

  On behalf of the detainees, attorney Roseburg complained that their food was distributed too late during the lockdown: breakfast came at 11:00am instead of 9:30am and lunch was served between 3:00 and 4:00pm along with the last meal. “Those meals were already cold,” Roseburg said.

  The defence argues that the Inmates Association exaggerates and “creates drama.” Kraaijeveld: “As far as I know there is no air conditioning in the prison, so how cold could that food have gotten?”

  The detainees themselves sabotage the distribution of meals, according to Kraaijeveld. Government states that the detainees’ strike is actually about releases. “Detainees think they are entitled to early release and probation release. But that requires, among other things, advice from the probation service,” the attorney said on behalf of government.

  The judge pointed out to the parties that they are interdependent. “It would be wise to consult with each other. The invitation from the Head of Judicial Affairs is there,” said the judge, who allowed the board of the Inmates Association two minutes to deliberate. “Agreements resulting from the consultation can be laid down in a judgment, as a binding agreement,” the judge added.

  Parties enter into consultation on Monday morning. Depending on the outcome of the discussions, the judge will pass judgment on a date to be determined.



From left: Attorney Aernout Kraaijeveld, Pointe Blanche prison director Steven Carty and Ministry of Justice Senior Policy Advisor Johishi Romney look on as the three inmates who make up the board of the Inmates Association get into a police van to be taken back to prison.

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