Prison Break  

By S. Modeliar

The problems in the prisons of Mauritius are not new. Many questions have been asked in Parliament on the prisons. Many articles have been published in the press. Heads of the prisons service have been replaced. But has there been a serious and radical study of what is wrong in our prison system?Press reports indicate that the Prime Minister is planning to recommend a Commission of Inquiry in the escape of the prisoners. What will that achieve? It will mean paying millions of rupees to a Supreme Court Judge, sitting or retired, and/or assessors and then wait for a report to be submitted in about six months. The report will then be studied by Cabinet and most probably be shelved or buried in some dusty drawers of the corridors of power. The impression is that the government is trying to gain time by the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry. Pushing the dust under the carpet will not do. No, not anymore.

For years now we have been hearing about cellular phones, drugs and other prohibited materials being introduced in the prisons. What have our past governments, including the one that has been in power since 2005, done about that? True it is the MMM-MSM government of 2000-05 had also been very complacent about the situation in the prisons. But that is not a justification for the passiveness of the present government in regard to that issue. It seems that we are reacting rather than being proactive in our approach to the handling of events that can seriously undermine our reputation as a society and country that is committed to the rule of law. 

In countries with a democratic process that permeates all sections of the administration, heads of departments where a disaster like a massive escape of prisoners occurs will have been sacked or would have resigned. This is not so in Mauritius. The police have arrested a junior prison officer. Whether there was a sufficient justification for that arrest is yet to be explained. Following the farcical arrest of Rama Sithanen the Prime Minister said that the powers of arrest of the police will be reviewed. The arrest of the junior prison officer appears to be a measure designed to protect those who allowed a situation to reach a point of no return. The people at the top may have lamentably failed either in leadership or in imaginative and creative management skills in dealing with the situation in the prisons. What has the government done about those at the helm of the prisons? Surely the government does not wish to be a prisoner of the poor practices that have been prevailing in the prisons so far. Arresting a small fry or trying to boost the image of law and order with a Commission of Inquiry that would cost the taxpayers millions of rupees at a time of dire economic crunch will not help.

The fault does not lie with the government alone. The press, the public writers who have nothing better to do, the now famous or infamous commentators who have a free hand in some newspapers are writing all sorts of nonsense and pouring their frustration on the authorities on all subjects. A minor incident in the prisons involving a prisoner would be blown up and becomes the headline of the press. The slightest incident in the prison involving a prisoner is laid at the door of the prison authorities. This sort of attitude comes from the very people who would be complaining about the law and order situation. While it may be conceded that prisoners have rights and should be treated humanely, it cannot be suggested or accepted that prisoners are entitled to a five star hotel treatment as the crusaders in favour of prisoners would want it. There is total irresponsibility on the part of some sections of the press and of some crusaders who create an impression that prisoners are living in dire conditions. If that is so the prisoners should be let loose on those very crusaders.

That massive escape of prisoners should be a wake up call for all of us and beckon us to reflect seriously that there are more serious issues to be dealt with than politics day in and day out. The opposition also has a vital role to play in dealing with the situation in the prisons. The opposition cannot remain content with pillorying the government. It is their legitimate duty to ask questions but they must be framed and geared towards finding an acceptable solution rather that deriving political capital out of a serious situation. Unfortunately, the opposition is far from acting in a patriotic manner. Everything must be politicised. That is part of the tragedy of our democracy.

Too much focus is placed on the human rights of prisoners and accused persons in Mauritius. The rights of society and those of the victims are simply and vulgarly forgotten. It is much more fashionable to talk about and defend the rights of prisoners and of accused persons. So why bother about their victims? We should not be in the least surprised if tomorrow the prisoners who escaped and who have been caught back start making complaints against the police or the prison authorities with the help of a cohort of lawyers who would inflate the news by making press statements on the alleged mistreatment of their clients.

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2010

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