It’s easy to say that prisoners deserve what they get, that they’ve made their bed and now they should lie in it. And it’s true, to a degree. But there is a point past which a man ceases to be a man. The measure of our society, of our capacity to care for one another, is made according to where we draw that line. There is nothing in kastom or natural justice that condones crossing that threshold.
The great comfort of kastom is that every person has their place, in life, in the village, in the world. The government needs to commit to building a new prison and to allowing our chiefs to continue to watch over their children. If it does –when it does – it will ensure that conditions will improve, both for our prisoners and for society as a whole.
[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]
On December 5, a remarkable document surfaced. Prison Report 2008, authored in secret by Vanuatu inmates on a contraband laptop, is a long, ambling document that alternates between history, documentary and cri de coeur as it recounts the hardships faced by those incarcerated in Vanuatu’s prisons.
At times uncritical, naive and even occasionally self-serving, the report nonetheless contains well documented reports of violence and mistreatment in our prisons.
The report paints a picture of regular physical abuse and neglect in an environment that resists our best efforts to improve it. The prisoners claim that it is precisely these conditions that not only lead them to escape but allow them to succeed.
The prisoners are frankly foolish in their expectations. They make claims for compensation to the tune of 100 million vatu and finish with a warning that if these claims are not addressed within 14 days the prisoners will walk out.
Director of Correctional Services Joshua Bong initially insisted his department had not seen the report, but has since assured the prisoners that a commission of inquiry will be established to investigate the claims. On Thursday, he indicated his intention to stop any effort to leave the prison – with or without outside help –by blockading the road in front of the Stade.
Notwithstanding all precautions taken, the prisoners made good on their threats. On Friday morning at roughly 9:30 a.m., they set the prison alight. In the ensuing chaos, they exited the building, tossed a bible astride the concertina wire atop the fence, and used that foothold to effect their escape.