(CNS): Claims by the chair of the Human Rights Commission that, due to its appalling state, HMP Northward cannot house inmates in accordance with either the Cayman Islands constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights should be pursued through a judicial review, a judge has suggested. The conditions at the country’s male prison were brought up by James Austin-Smith last week when he spoke on behalf of Robert Aspinall, who was recently convicted for stealing almost $500,000 from funds he was liquidating while working as a financial executive with Deloitte.
While some people like to describe the prison as a country club, Austin-Smith said that the jail was in such a bad state that the judge could consider it a mitigating factor when it came to assessing how long Aspinall should serve.
However, Justice Tim Owen made it clear in his ruling that the 3½ year sentence he handed down for Aspinall was not reduced in any way to take account of the conditions at Northward. He noted that it would “plainly be wholly wrong for the court to give Mr Aspinall a special discount on sentence because he might find the likely conditions at Northward to be especially unpleasant”.
He said that the remedy would lie in the judicial review process.
Noting that the inspection reports of the prison found grave concerns about the jail, the judge said a judicial review would provide the forum where the executive branch of government could respond to the allegations that the prison was unfit and then justify the continued incarceration of all of the men serving time there, not just Aspinall.
While Austin-Smith has said he believes the prisoners would have a good case, the difficulty for most serving inmates is that they do not have the money to mount a legal challenge to the jail’s conditions. Without a rich sponsor or benefactor, it is very unlikely that an action would reach the courts because it is unlikely that the courts would sanction legal aid for such a claim.
HMP Northward has received a failing grade by the prison inspectorate in two reviews, though improvements were noted in the most recent report.
The current director, Neil Lavis, has been taking action where he can to try and address some of the worst elements of the jail. Security has been improved with a fence upgrade; the juvenile wing has been renovated and a new kitchen has been installed. However, since taking up the job, he has consistently stated that the Cayman Islands is in desperate need of a new prison as it is in an appalling state and overcrowded, and the dated design of the facility presents significant security challenges.
Lavis is, nonetheless, well aware that political support for spending millions of dollars on a new jail is not likely to be forthcoming, and although he is in the process of presenting his case, he has stated on previous occasions that he isn’t expecting to see much increase in his annual $10 million budget.
There has been much public comment over the years about the conditions at HMP Northward but the reality is far removed from the perceptions in the community. Significant parts of the jail, particularly B wing where the bulk of the prisoners are held, has been condemned. It is not only hot, squalid and filthy, it is almost always overcrowded as prison numbers continue to climb.
A wing, the high security unit also known as the basic unit, is also in a terrible condition. Most of the prisoners serving time on that wing are particularly violent offenders, convicted of murder, rape or other violent offences, as well as rival gang members that pose significant security threats. As a result, most of those prisoners are serving their time locked inside their cells for 23 hours a day.
Efforts to address the high rates of recidivism in the Cayman Islands could make things worse. Under the new Conditional Release Law all inmates will serve at least 60% of their term before they are eligible for parole.
And while under the previous law any prisoner who behaved during their time could expect to leave after serving two thirds of their sentence, the new law mandates that the inmates reach a certain level of rehabilitation before their release, either by learning a new skill, having a realistic prospect of finding work or having demonstrably addressed the cause of their offending.
With only a marginal increase in his budget to achieve a turnaround in the prison population in the first instance, the director has warned that this new legislation could see the already packed jail become even more over crowded.