A step towards prison reform in Grenada

The Grenada Human Rights Organisation (GHRO)  is seeking to generate support for prison reform on the island through an initiative being undertaken with assistance from the United States-based Global Alliance for Legal Aid (GALA).

Milton Coy and GALA Executive Director Jami Solli

Milton Coy and GALA Executive Director Jami Solli

A delegation from both organisations along with a support team of volunteer barristers from the United Kingdom (UK) visited Her Majesty’s Prison at Richmond Hill, St. George last month to conduct a review of the conditions at the facility to see if they are in compliance with the United Nations (UN) guidelines for treatment of prisoners.

GALA is a non-profit organisation that supports human rights advocates and has as its members a set of lawyers in developing countries who provide legal services directly to the court.

In an exclusive interview with THE NEW TODAY, local human rights representative Milton Coy said GHRO is thrilled to partner with GALA in the push towards prison reform in the country in light of the failed attempts by his organisation in the past to conduct a full assessment of the situation in the prison.

“We at the organisation attempted to conduct a review, we started but we were not able to complete and that was because of a number of reasons,” he said.

According to Coy, the Commissioner of Prisons at the time felt that the organisation should  put a hold on the review for a while but he never got back to the grouping.

He noted that “nothing happened afterwards” and the initiative was “aborted” and can be considered to have “ended prematurely.”

Coy made mention of the overcrowded situation at the prison and alluded  to the need for alternative sentencing to be imposed by the local court system.

He said that GHRO has been receiving letters from inmates calling for help and declared the belief of the local human rights organisation that “inmates serving time at the prison ought to be in conditions that are acceptable” in accordance with the standards set out by the

“The prison is not a punishment center,” but a place where solid
“foundations” are laid, he added.

GALA Executive Director Jami Solli who was on island as part of the visit to the Richmond Hill prison said the assessment to be undertaken of the facility is aimed at comparing how Grenada is complying with UN standards for the treatment of prisoners

“…It’s a comparison to (UN) guidelines which exist, so what we’re going to do is come back with all of our data and compare how Grenada complies with these guidelines…which also take into account that Grenada is a developing country,” she explained.

Solli, a lawyer by profession, alluded to several “serious issues”
that the US-based GALA believes needed to be addressed at the local prison.

She said the issues are not alarming and should not be surprising to the authorities at the Richmond Hill prison since they exist in other prisons like overcrowding but the problem is how to challenge them due to a limited budget.”

She conceded that “limited will” to tackle the existing problems is a significant factor to be dealt with in addressing those issues.

“I think there is also a problem in this country as well as globally with regards to the idea of a prison as a place to reform people and give them the help they need to be integrated into society”, she said.

“The attitude that we are seeing now globally is that this (prison) is a place to warehouse people, to keep them away from the rest of the people (civilisation) and to punish them, and we do not see that as a valid response to the problems that we are seeing in prisons”, she added.

The American lawyer stated that the longstanding issue of overcrowding at prisons coupled with a challenge to find adequate facilities to house incarcerated youth remain an area of major concern.

She noted that apart from the women and juveniles, “right now there are about 440 young men” serving prison terms in a facility that was originally built hundreds of years ago to be “used as a hospital” to facilitate a “maximum of 180 people’ and “was not structurally intended to be a prison.”

The “overcrowding leads to sanitary problems,” she said, adding that “there are toilets up there that are backed up because they are not meant to be handling (so many)…men flushing them on a daily basis.”
Solli, who also used the tour to interact with some of the inmates said they expressed dissatisfaction with the way they are treated.

“Generally they are upset with the conditions, they are overcrowded, sanitary issues were also a concern for them,” she said while pointing at the “lack of contact to the outside world” and having access to “news of the outside world is also very hard for them.”

“Some of them (the prisoners) may not be getting regular visits,” and “they can’t call outside the prison” or “receive phone calls…there are no phone facilities” and “cell phones are not allowed…there are no access to newspapers,” she said.

According to Solli, the daily lifestyle of the prisoners at the Richmond Hill institution “is very isolated and very sad” when taken into consideration that they have been “extracted” from life as they know it and now have almost “no contact with civilisation,” apart from letter writing.

She cited other burning issues of concern as the absence of legal aid
for offenders, a law reform commission, a parole board, a Mercy Committee and a non-functioning Visitation committee.

The US human rights activist described the Grenada initiative, which is the first of its kind to occur in the Eastern Caribbean as “a
stepping stone towards having projects and programme activities that would actually (improve) the conditions in the prison.”

“We would hope that with some issues we can provide support and that would be in terms of legal research or if it’s an issue of legal reform, we can actually be involved in the drafting process…”, she said.

“…It all depends on the issues that we find and which we feel are feasible and we can do something practical about – we are looking for those really low hanging fruits that we can immediately address and we can work with whoever is interested locally in working with us,” she added.

Solli disclosed that the report containing the findings of the assessment would be presented in “about a month” to the local prison authorities for review in order to pave the way for further discussions on the way forward.

Once finalised the report would also be supplied to the National
Committee for Human Rights, to inform its reporting process to be sent to the United Nations as part of the universal periodic review process, which occurs every four years.

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