~ Concerned about safety, security ~
PHILIPSBURG--The Pointe Blanche prison operated with what workers called a "skeletal staff" Monday as frustrated prison guards assembled at the Windward Islands Civil Servants Union/Private Sector Union (WICSU/PSU) during work hours to demand an audience with Prison Director Edward Rohan and Justice Minister Dennis Richardson on their safety and security following the recent violent incident at the prison.
WICSU/PSU official William Reed said members are prepared to continue meeting at the union's office until the director and minister decide to meet with them about their concerns. The union sent an email to Rohan and Richardson early yesterday requesting a meeting.
However, in an invited comment Rohan told The Daily Herald that while he planned to meet with the workers this week, he is unable to do so before Wednesday because the situation at the prison is still very volatile and his presence is required there. "I don't have any time to go and sit with the union today [Monday – Ed.], there is still a lot of tension at the prison," Rohan said. "But I will sit and talk with all of them because we have to work together. This situation happened last Thursday. On Friday we did searches and today [yesterday – Ed.] is Monday, I was busy talking with inmates, but I will meet with the workers this week for sure."
Reed said prison guards were frustrated and unhappy that the director hadn't addressed them since last Thursday's violent incident at the prison. An inmate was seriously injured and a number of weapons including two guns were discovered in the prison in a subsequent search. Prison guards said this had been the first time guns had been found in the prison and they were concerned about their safety on the job.
Reed said prison guards want a clear plan of action put in place to address security and safety concerns at the facility. Prison guards were very critical of the management of the penal institution, saying that ever since Rohan took up the helm at the prison, "things have only gotten worse." They accused the management team of being a lame duck and the director unable to firmly address the issues facing the facility. "He [Rohan – Ed.] has shown that he cannot handle the situation at the prison," Reed contends. "And if he cannot handle the situation then he should do the honourable thing."
"The workers feel as if they are on their own. There is a high degree of trauma among the workers who are faced with a very dangerous situation," Reed added. "They want the prison director to talk to them. They are demanding change and this has to start today."
The finding of two firearms at the prison is one of the primary reasons why guards feel that their safety is at risk. Reed said 99 per cent of the prison guards were worried that one of their colleagues was possibly responsible for smuggling the guns into the prison and felt as though this jeopardized the safety of everyone.
Some said that it could not be ruled out that security officers from the private security firm that guards sections of the facility were involved in getting the items to inmates.
Rohan believes that there is no question as to how the weapons got into the prison. "How did the guns get in there? I don't think the prisoners went outside and got them. I don't think it came by mail. They had to get in there somewhere or the other," he said.
The frustration amongst prison guards was evident during the meeting as several of them expressed their dissatisfaction with what has been taking place at the facility. The guards believe that their concerns to prison management have been falling on deaf ears. Reed as well as several prison guards said numerous suggestions have been made on bolstering the manpower at the prison to increase safety and security.
Suggestions included seeking temporary manpower assistance from the Netherlands and using the services of Voluntary Corps St. Maarten VKS officers who are currently unemployed to man key sections of the prison that are currently guarded by unarmed workers from a local security company. The prison guards said it was not ideal for the main entrance of the prison as well as the lookout tower to be manned by unarmed security officers from a private firm.
Rohan said he has been working on trying to get assistance from the Netherlands since 2012, but noted that getting workers from the Netherlands to quit their jobs to come to St. Maarten to work would be costly as these persons would have to be provided with a proper salary and housing, none of which the prison can afford. "If we don't have the money to employ someone here on the island, how will we be able to bring in nine to 20 people from Holland? Even a little child can understand this. The prison needs funds and we need to improve the situation by starting to pay prison guards here more salary," Rohan said adding that bringing in guards from the Netherlands is no guarantee that the security issues will be resolved.
The Prison Director said too that many VKS officers have second jobs and told him they were unwilling to work at the prison. "The VKS officers said if they work in the prison, the prison guards will still go to sleep (call in sick). We already have some VKS officers at the prison and they are the ones working and the prison staff who are supposed to work, are reporting sick."
Preference for inmates
Another concern of prison guards is what they see as preference for inmates. One guard spoke of an incident in which an inmate shoved a guard and instead of being immediately taken into solitary confinement as punishment, the inmate was allowed to finish up his errands before he was placed in confinement and the guard whom he allegedly attacked was asked if they had been "ok" with this measure. Rohan said he was not aware of this incident.
Another guard said it was difficult for prison guards to conduct their duties to, for example, check the cells of inmates as prisoners were allowed to hang sheets and cloths blocking the entrance of their cells as well as around their beds. The prison guard said this was not just an impediment to their executing their duties, it was also a dangerous situation as they had to resort to climbing on top of something to peer over the cloths covering the entrance of cells to see if the inmate was in their cells during patrols, while having their weapons on them. The guard said the sheets would be removed one day and given back to the inmate the next day.
Rohan said it was the duty of the prison guards to remove items that inmates use to block their cells. "They are talking about being unable to see the prisoner in their cells because the prisoners are tying up sheets, but they are the ones who are supposed to take them down not me," Rohan said. "They can go to the union and say these things, but who are supposed to take them down. They have to do their work. I always say that I would like cell inspections done three times a week."
Rohan said prison guards were creating their own problems due to the high level of absenteeism due to sick leave, which he said was a major problem at the penal institution.
"It is a challenging situation, but it can be real simple if everyone just do their jobs and do what they have to do."
Reed, however, said that the "easiest thing" for prison guards who are concerned about their safety to do is call in sick. He said too that it was not just at the prison that workers go on sick leave. "The Director doesn't want to hear that people are on sick leave, but in every work environment you will find that people are sick occasionally," Reed said. "Every time there is an accusation, it is the workers fault, but we believe that the Director also has to take responsibility as he is considered the father of the prison."
Rohan said many of the workers who attended the meeting at the union office were out sick just last week. "Every single day there are people calling in sick; when I walk into the prison at 6:45am, the workers look at me and say this one has called in sick and that one has called in sick. If we need seven staff members to start morning shift and three call in sick and two have to go to the doctor before they go on the job, then they are creating problems for themselves. It's the same routine every day and this short staff didn't start yesterday and didn't start in 2012 it started in 2003 and 2004. I am busy trying to get persons to work in the prison, but to work here you need to go to school."
In the meantime, Rohan said the current action by prison guards to hold meetings at their union has not affected the facility as inmates have been in their cells on "lockdown" since last week's incident for the safety of inmates and prison guards.
He said he has an open door policy and can be approached with any issue, but the union said its members' suggestions are disregarded and their calls for Rohan to experience what prison guards go through by, amongst other things, going to the back of the prison, are fruitless. "The staff can always come to me, but they like to talk behind my back, but no one comes in," Rohan said.