Human rights still violated in St. Maarten police cells



SATURDAY, 10 MARCH 2012

~ Deteriorated hygienic situation at prison ~

THE HAGUE--Essential human rights of people locked up in St. Maarten police cells are still being violated and the hygienic situation at prison has deteriorated. Those are two conclusions of two Dutch justice experts who looked at the situation of detainees in cells at the Philipsburg police station and at the Pointe Blanche prison early last year.

According to the experts Paul Vegter and Juan de Lange, detainees - especially foreigners - remain in the police cells too long, persons are insufficiently aired, they don't have adequate access to lawyers and there are no medical take-ins and the practice of drawing up custody reports has stopped.

Improvements at the Pointe Blanche prison seem to have stagnated, stated Vegter and De Lange in their July 2011 report, which Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Liesbeth Spies sent to the Second Chamber this week, along with the response of St. Maarten Minister of Justice Roland Duncan.

Reports on the conditions at the police cells and penitentiary facilities in Aruba and Curaçao were also sent to the Dutch Parliament.

The Pointe Blanche prison is still affected by understaffing, especially at top management and middle management levels. The hygienic situation seems to have deteriorated and the renovation of the prison facilities hasn't started as yet, stated the researchers in their 19-page report.

They noted that some inmates, for their own safety, are sometimes locked up in isolation cells or in the infirmary.

The researchers report that the atmosphere was less relaxed than during their previous visit to the prison. Inmates complained about defective toilets in the cells, the unhygienic situation at the wash basins and mildew in the area where food is prepared. Prison personnel and members of the supervisory committee confirmed this.

Vegter and De Lange noted that the prison director wants to eliminate the Inmates Association. They published the director's letter in which he asked the Justice Minister to temporarily annul the association because of "negative" influences by some leaders.

Improvements

The experts concluded, however, that there have been some improvements as well, both at the prison and at the police cells. The new police cells have become available, the hygienic situation in those cells is "in order," detainees are allowed reading materials, they may receive visitors and medical care is available. The ACTPOL registration system is being used.

At the Pointe Blanche prison, two doctors have been contracted, medical care seems more or less in order, the maximum capacity is not exceeded and the electronic supervision project is still ongoing, concluded De Lange of Rotterdam's Erasmus University and Vegter, Solicitor General at the Supreme Court and professor at Radboud University Nijmegen.

The shortage of cells at the Pointe Blanche prison has direct influence on the duration of the stay of detainees at the police cells. The maximum stay at the police cells may not exceed 18 days and if after 26 days, there is still no room at the prison, the detainee is released on the order of the Judge of Instruction. "According to members of the Police Force and the Public Prosecutor's Office this happens several times per week."

Justice Minister Duncan on December 5, 2011, responded to the report in a letter to Governor Eugene Holiday who, based on a decision of the Kingdom Council of Ministers, reports to The Hague on the improvements at the penitentiary facilities in St. Maarten.

More capacity

In his letter, Duncan stated that he was "happy" with the report since it supported his policy that there should be a structural increase in detention capacity. The report also indicates points of improvement, stated Duncan, who pointed out that the Plan of Approach for the prison is being executed and monitored by the Progress Committee.

According to the Minister, most complaints of Pointe Blanche prison inmates should become a thing of the past once the renovation has started. The living conditions and hygiene in the cells will be dealt with during the first part of the renovation.

Authorities have started to recruit and train new justice personnel, explained Duncan. A significant number of these new employees will be working at the prison and at the police cells. He further clarified the plans to turn "the Box" in Cay Hill into a penitentiary facility and expansion of holding capacity for inmates at the police cells in Philipsburg and Simpson Bay.

Unacceptable

This was the fourth progress report of Vegter and De Lange. In their previous investigation in 2009 they encountered an "unacceptable" situation at the police cells. In September 2008, De Lange and Vegter had already given the Philipsburg police cells an unsatisfactory mark. The problems were the same in 2008 and 2009: crowded hot cells, little ventilation, insufficient opportunity to air and the absence of daylight.

Many of these aspects have improved since then, because the new cells at the police station became available per January 2011. When the researchers returned in 2011, detainees were able to see daylight, each had a mattress, ventilation in the cells had improved, cells had their own toilet and shower and the cells were "very clean." The atmosphere was also relatively quiet and there were no reports of violence among detainees.

A concern, however, remained: the limited possibility for detainees to be aired and to exercise. "Detainees are only aired once a week," stated Vegter and De Lange, who didn't buy the excuse of shortage of police personnel or bad weather. "It just doesn't seem to be a priority."

The experts pointed out that daily airing is a minimum right of detainees "A minimum that should be realised under all circumstances. The possibility to air and exercise outside forms a very important aspect for the CPT in its judgement." The situation should improve once personnel to care for arrested persons have been trained.