No Silver Bullet

The recent prisoner escape has –quite understandably– raised emotions among Port Vila residents. Our collective inability to end this chronic threat has led many to call for drastic action in order to resolve the problem once and for all.

If only it were that easy.

[Originally written for the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

The recent prisoner escape has –quite understandably– raised emotions among Port Vila residents. Our collective inability to end this chronic threat has led many to call for drastic action in order to resolve the problem once and for all.

If only it were that easy.

Much has been said on the topic, most of it in the heat of the moment. As difficult as it may be when we feel our loved ones are threatened, we need to step back from our emotions so we can properly evaluate the situation.

Let’s consider some of the pronouncements that have been made in the media over the last week or so:

1) Prison escapes are getting worse, not better. Correctional Services is a failure.

Unproven. The frequency of prison escapes has dropped in direct relation to the Government’s commitment of funds and resources to Correctional Services. There’s every reason to believe that escapes will decrease even further once a proper correctional centre is built.

2) Escapes diminished drastically after the VMF were tasked with rounding up prisoners.

Patently false. The largest escape in the history of Port Vila’s history was motivated in part because of the role the VMF played in prisoners’ regular and brutal mistreatment. Joshua Bong was unable to stop a mass escape even when told by the prisoners themselves when the breakout going to happen.

The escapes stopped (until now) only after a thorough-going revamp of procedures accompanied by the construction of a more secure and more humane facility.

3) None of this would have happened if we hadn’t let foreign influences dictate to us.

This is Vanuatu’s problem. Placing the blame on others’ shoulders is intellectually lazy and un-productive.

Prison reform was not foisted upon us. This path was freely chosen by the Government. Not to put too fine a point on it, if both parties were as committed to the process as New Zealand is, it might have been implemented –properly– 5 years ago.

We need to recognise that New Zealand agreed to partner with the Government in reaction to the prisons’ sieve-like security post-1980. We also need to ask ourselves why a programme that is effective in New Zealand consistently fails in Vanuatu.

If reports are correct, the direct cause of the prisoners’ escape was the fact that they were left unsupervised for at least 30 minutes because a guard wanted a cup of tea.

While kastom-based village justice programmes have proven useful in rehabilitating many offenders, a minority of our prisoners are dangerous and probably beyond rehabilitation. I challenge anyone to come up with a more measured and pragmatic plan for them than that which has been proposed.

4) Prison guards should have firearms.

This suggestion flies in the face of prison doctrine world-wide. Guards who interact directly with the prison population are deliberately not given firearms because those weapons can be captured and  turned against them, making the escapee(s) even more dangerous.

Ask yourself: How would you feel if you heard these same prisoners were loose in Port Vila and armed with pistols or assault rifles?

Reports have suggested that the guards allowed themselves to be intimidated by the mere threat of stoning. Clearly, steps need to be taken to ensure they don’t lose control of their charges so easily. But giving guards guns makes things worse, not better.

5) Escaped prisoners’ human rights should be ignored.

Let’s be honest: This is really just a polite way of saying that prisoners should be shot, or at least beaten at will.

Without going into the why’s and wherefor’s of this debate, let’s at least be clear about one thing: If the police or VMF are going to be given the power to summarily punish or even execute certain individuals, then they need some clear rules established concerning when, why and how this happens.

Nobody is going to argue that Kasimir’s rights outweigh those of our sons and daughters. But if we’re going to authorise his trackers to shoot him on sight, what’s keeping your son or daughter out of the crossfire?

When the bullets start flying, they don’t distinguish between Good Guys and Bad.

Moreover, does this death penalty (let’s call it what it is) apply to all escapees? Consider the real case of a young Tannese man straight from the island, jailed for theft. He speaks no Bislama or English and doesn’t fully understand why he’s been incarcerated. Were he to escape, unaware of the consequences, should we shoot him too?

If society is intent on putting aside people’s human rights under certain circumstances, then for its own sake it had damn well better be clear about what those circumstances are, lest the innocent suffer with the guilty.

Equally important, the responsibility for who gets to live and who dies is too great to be trusted to a few individuals, both for their sake and for ours. We as a society must own that choice.

Until the Law says otherwise, killing or beating prisoners after their apprehension is a crime.

6) Prisoners don’t deserve respect or kindness.

Anyone who’s heard the details of the crimes committed by some of these men would be hard-pressed to show even the slightest flicker of compassion. My honest reaction to the news that one of them had kidnapped a young woman from my neighbourhood, torturing and raping her for four days was… well, suffice it to say that I don’t know if he’d survive 5 minutes alone with me.

But before we indulge that desire to return an eye for an eye, we need to remember two things:

  1. Some prisoners truly are psychopaths and a danger to society. But they are the minority. Treating all of them that way becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kick the sweetest-natured dog often enough and eventually he will bite back.
  2. The unbearable, inhuman conditions described by the prisoners themselves led even remand prisoners to escape. Poor prison conditions only made them more desperate, more willing to go to any lengths to escape.

Treating prisoners humanely is a pragmatic concern, not a moral one. Simply put, a prisoner who is treated with a modicum of decency has less reason to run away.

I have no silver-bullet solutions to offer here. That’s because they don’t exist. We’re deceiving ourselves if we pretend they do.

It’s not my place to prescribe the choices Vanuatu society makes about its own offenders. All I’m suggesting is that, when we consider our options, we think them all the way through.

Dealing with its transgressors is one of human society’s defining challenges. It’s a thicket of thorns that has entangled us throughout history, one from which we can never completely emerge.

Who We Are

A society is defined by how it treats those in its care. In Vanuatu, that often means that community rights trump the individual’s. In the Western legal justice system, individual rights are paramount. This creates a tension that subverts the ability of the community to police itself. In Vanuatu’s case, it erodes the chief’s mandate with regard to justice and social order, placing police and legal justice in his place. If they fail, the entire system fails.

More than anything else, kastom’s continuing influence has kept Vanuatu from falling into the same pit of lawlessness and disorder as PNG and the Solomons.

It is not, therefore, the mere idea that the VMF beat and killed Bule that I find troubling. It is the fact that, by allowing some to act without restraint, without any rules whatsoever, we as a society are moving further towards a culture that sanctions lawlessness. We have only to look at Port Moresby, with its rampant, uncontrollable violence and its often deadly law enforcement, to see where Port Vila will be in a decade.

If, that is, we don’t take steps now to bring our troublemakers back within society’s grasp.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

After more than a month’s delay, prison escapee John Bule’s body was finally put to rest this week. While his family may have some degree of solace now that they can properly mourn his passing, and in spite of Government entreaties to allow the justice system to work, many feel that much remains to be said about how we treat our prisoners.

In a searing letter to the Editor earlier this week, one man described how his children and their nanny had been terrorised by knife-wielding thieves. The nanny was only saved from rape or worse by the man’s timely arrival.

If we had Capital Punishment,” he writes, “I would gladly pull the trigger on this criminal.

I know exactly how he feels. Nearly a decade after the fact, I have only to think about one man and I begin to shake with rage.

Years ago, I lived in a frontier town smaller than Port Vila. I found evidence that one of its residents had been molesting children for over a decade, and that one of them, a 12 year old girl, had since committed suicide.

I sat at home for hours, trying to decide whether to call the police, or simply to pull my rifle from its locker and shoot him myself. In the end, I picked up the telephone, not the gun.

Read more “Who We Are”

A Fresh Start

Considering its contents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a curious document. If the rights enumerated in it are indeed central to our nature, why do we need to list them at all, much less give them the force of law?

The answer is potentially embarrassing to many of us. Human rights are not convenient. They get in the way of many desires that, for better or worse, are also deep-rooted in the human soul.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Another year passes and a new one begins; a useful time to pause for a moment and reflect on what we have, what we know, and what we want.

The things we have are stacked side by side like extra timbers kept dry under the eaves – notionally of value, but of uncertain usefulness right now…..

Read more “A Fresh Start”

A Matter of Justice

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.

Read more “A Matter of Justice”