Changing the face of prisons

The National,Friday June 24th, 2016

This week Correctional Services commissioner Michael Waipo signed a four-year contract with the State and made a commitment to improve the country’s ailing prison system.
Like the Police force, Papua New Guinea’s jails are in need of an overhaul and of new methods of operating and modes of thinking.
Many take it for granted that once an offender is prosecuted and convicted the time they do is worthy of consideration.
It is natural to want to forget this part of the process of the justice system, the back end, which many would rather forget but Waipo’s declaration should be taken seriously.
After all he had to fight his way back from the brink of dismissal and was actually replaced for a period over the last 12 months when a leadership crisis hit the department’s hierarchy.
Waipo held his ground and maintained that he was at the very least a leader of an important state department that had more to offer before he was sidelined.
Now Waipo has his opportunity to go through with his plans – he has four years to affect the type of change he was referring to at Government House on Wednesday when he signed the instruments that would set his new term in motion.
“I am thankful to the secretary (John Kali) of the Department of Personnel Management and his staff for being able to pull it together for me,” Waipo said.
He added that signing the contract was only “one bit” but the delivery of services as a leader was a “big challenge”.
He thanked the Government for its confidence in him.
Waipo is one of the Correctional Services’ longest serving members and one of its oldest but in these times Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has shown a tendency to install veterans to key state departments in the justice system.
Gari Baki’s appointment as Police commissioner was as much about the “old school” approach as it was about getting stability and discipline back in the ranks.
Time will tell whether this has been the best strategy but if Waipo is anything like Baki, he will stick by his principles and what he believes to be the best way forward.
Waipo was in fact appointed to the post in 2014 but the formalities took a while to be done. Waipo now faces the huge task of revamping the prison system across the country.
He needs to first of all make his jails places were prisoners can serve their time and be returned in a condition not worse off than they were when they went in.
He will need money for that and the challenge will be on the State to give him the ability to carry out his plans for the CS in what will probably be his final term in charge.
That is a tough ask for any warden or jail commander the world over as prisons are universally some of the worst places where men and women can be kept in confinement, repaying their debt to society through time spent behind bars.
Most of the problems faced by prisons in PNG are commonly faced in other developing countries: overcrowding, the lack of proper living facilities, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, relatively easy access to the public places in the immediate vicinity (for some jails which in turn brings up the question of possible escape and the danger this posses to the communities close by), harsh treatment by prison personnel in terms of violence and other forms of psychological abuse.
Waipo said one of the major projects he was focusing on would be the building of a new jail for Hela province which he would work on with provincial administrator William Bando.
Interestingly, Kali said Waipo and Bando had to deliver on the new prison in Hela as they would be held accountable.
“For the first time, they will be getting a pay rise. Now we have performance bonuses, so if they perform, they get an incremental rise in their salary,” Kali said.
Presumably, Kali was referring to the two men who will be heading the project.
In his term, Waipo should also make an effort to improve the lot of his workforce appreciably. Prison warders have one of the most thankless tasks in society.
They hold and watch the nation’s criminals and law breakers.
They deserve some consideration.