PNG’s barbarous prisons

Focus, Normal

Early this month, Correctional Services Minister Tony Aimo confirmed that his ministry would spend more than K9 million to arm prison guards with non-lethal weapons. The decision was immediately criticised. More recently, Transparency International (PNG) said the move would not solve the various problems faced by the prisons while one senior law and order officer said the money would be better spent on improving prison conditions and staff quarters. Writer KEVIN CHILDS revisit a damning report by a UN special rapporteur on the issue.


AUSTRALIA gives almost A$460 million a year to PNG but seems to do little about the staggering level of violence in places such as police lock-ups, where people not convicted of any crime may be held for months.
Some die in custody.
Evidence has now been found of police deliberately disabling those suspected of a serious crime or who escape custody.
About 40% of people in PNG live in poverty, that is, on less than A$0.90 a day and it has the highest rate of reported HIV cases in the region.
Last year, an estimated 98,757 people or 2.56% of the adult population had HIV/AIDS.
Four years ago, Human Rights Watch reported the prevalence of police violence, with children and others in police custody often raped and tortured.
“Police rapes and torture are crimes, not methods of crime control,” Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights division, then reported. “These brutal tactics have destroyed public confidence in the police.”
A little-publicised report by the United Nations has found an appalling incidence use of torture and other abuse by police, including systematic beatings of prisoners on arrest or soon after.
“Very often, beatings are inflicted by the police as a form of punishment on suspects, reflecting complete disrespect for the presumption of innocence and the dignity of persons suspected of crimes,” a UN special rapporteur, in his report which was released in May, said.
While expressing gratitude for the willingness of the PNG government to open up to independent scrutiny as a means for assessing torture and ill-treatment, rapporteur Manfred Nowak was disappointed that at the highest political level, both in government and in parliament, his mission was not given appropriate attention.
He made unannounced visits to places of detention and held confidential interviews with selected detainees.
“However, in Buka police station, an intelligence officer from Port Moresby (named) verbally assaulted members of my team and even attempted to physically attack them.”
He said the spread of firearms exacerbated the problems of violent crime and tribal fighting.
Nowak saw how minor occurrences quickly grew into violent incidents.
He said the police were not always in a position to enforce the rule of law due to insufficient human and financial resources, a high level of corruption and unprofessionalism, difficulties in accessing remote rural areas and a lack of political will.
“The fact that there are far more private security officers than police officers in the country is a worrying sign of police weakness, and a failure of the state, to provide security and freedom from fear to its people,” he said.
Nowak also reported widespread abuse by enforcement personnel.
“Widely practised methods include beatings with car fan belts, bush knives, gun butts, iron rods, wooden sticks, stones and punching and kicking used mainly to punish and intimidate detainees and to establish authority,” he said.
“This worrying fact has been corroborated by medical evidence in a high number of cases.”
Outside detention, the police often used excessive force, not only in dealing with crime but also in evicting residents from settlements, Nowak said.
“Excessive use of force amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
“In correctional institutions, those who attempt or succeed in escaping are subjected to torture upon recapture as a standard practice.
“This includes brutal beatings with bush knives and gun butts, shooting detainees’ legs and feet at close range and cutting their tendons with bush knives and axes after they are apprehended, with the intent of disabling them.
“The victims are usually kept in punishment cells without any medical treatment, which sometimes leads to their death, as at Baisu Correctional Institution near Mt Hagen.”
A lack of effective complaints mechanisms, independent investigation and monitoring and similar safeguards create an environment of impunity fuelling these practices, he said.
There is a general atmosphere of violence and neglect in all police lock-ups and in many correctional institutions. Detainees had no knowledge of or trust in any complaint mechanisms available to them.
The lack of effective oversight mechanisms, and the prevalence of bribery in the criminal justice system, results in prolonged detention in police custody or on remand for detainees, particularly those with little money.
Lock-ups are used to keep detainees on remand for a considerable time, often for many months or even more than a year.
Over 11 days in May, Nowak saw detainees locked up in overcrowded and filthy cells without proper ventilation, natural light or access to food and water for washing, drinking and for flushing the toilets.
In the highlands, where temperatures can be particularly low at night, prisoners are often left without any blanket or warm clothes while sleeping on concrete floors.
“In general, detainees are hardly ever taken out of their cells, and I found several instances where the officers on duty did not even have the keys to some of the cells, raising serious safety concerns.”
Nowak found that some prisoners were forced to urinate and defecate in plastic bags and bottles, which were then picked up by the female detainees and piled in a small common space.
In all police stations, detainees had to sleep on the floor. Although some were allowed visitors, it was often only for a few minutes. Despite the very small amount of food provided to the detainees, food provided by families was often rejected.
Poor conditions and prolonged detention in lock-ups spreads cholera and other contagious diseases.
“Access to medical care was generally non-existent, leading sometimes to death in police custody.
“In other instances, the delayed access to any medical care led to avoidable amputations and the spread of disease among the detainees.
“The overall impression was one of negligence.”
None of the police stations can be regarded as complying with international minimum standards for the humane treatment of detainees, but conditions in Goroka and Mt Hagen police stations were particularly appalling.
Those held on remand are not separated from convicted prisoners, which violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Detention or punishment cells are overcrowded, holding up to three times their capacity. In some institutions, prisoners are locked in overcrowded cells up to 18 hours a day.
Nowak found that although violence against women seems to be widespread, the communities underreport it for shame or fear of further violence or rejection.
“Little support is granted by the state, and women who are victims of domestic violence do not seem to be recognised as victims.
“Many female detainees I interviewed were incarcerated for crimes linked to domestic violence and polygamy.”
He heard many allegations of sexual abuse by arresting officers in exchange for release from custody.
“Some officers also appear to frequently arrest women for minor offences with the intention of sexually abusing them.
“As a punishment, some women were also threatened or were placed in cells with male detainees for a night, where they were subjected to collective rape by the other detainees.”
Nowak recommended that the PNG government:
*Declare unambiguously that it will not tolerate torture or similar ill-treatment by public officials and that commanders will be held personally responsible for the abuses;
*Ensure prompt and thorough investigations for all allegations of ill-treatment or excessive use of force by an authority that is independent from the investigation and prosecution;
*Ensure a comprehensive and structural reform of the police in accordance with the recommendations of the administrative review committee to the then internal security minister in September 2004;
*Ratify the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and its optional protocol, providing for regular preventive visits to all places of detention by an independent domestic monitoring body;
*Amend the domestic legislation to include torture as a serious crime with adequate penalties;
*Reduce the period of police custody to a time limit in line with international standards (maximum 48 hours). After this period, detainees should be transferred to a separate remand facility under a different authority;
*Establish accessible and effective complaints mechanisms in all places of detention. Complainants must be protected from reprisals;
*Ensure those deprived of their liberty are confined in facilities where the conditions comply with international minimum sanitary and hygienic standards. Prisoners should be provided with opportunities for work, education, recreation and rehabilitation activities;
*Separate detainees on remand from convicted prisoners. Remove all children from adult detention facilities;
*Close down the Mt Hagen prison;
*Urgently build a proper correctional institution in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville; and
*Abolish the death penalty and ratify the second optional protocol to the international covenant on civil and political rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
Nowak also recommended that the international donor community consider protection of human rights in the criminal justice system and, in particular, the prevention of torture as the highest priority. – onlineopinion



*Kevin Childs is a freelance journalist and author, and a member of the board of the United Nations Association of Australia, Victoria.