POINTE BLANCHE–Attorney-at-law Sjamira Roseburg has sounded the alarm about the inhumane situation inside Pointe Blanche Prison. Despite a verdict by the European Court of Human Rights, the rights of inmates are still being violated, she says. “The situation is still degrading.”
Three inmates are sharing one cell of 12 square metres with leaking rainwater. The prison is infested with cockroaches and prison staff is having difficulties managing calamities and these are only a few of the problems inmates and their lawyers are being confronted with during their detention.
“As a criminal lawyer, it is very frustrating to visit clients under the current conditions. You must first listen to your client and calm him down before you can go into the content of the criminal case. Clients are frustrated and feel that their lives do not matter. During every visit I get to hear how bad the situation in prison is. One is talking about the fact that he has a severe rash on his skin, the other about leakage after heavy rainfall. Another speaks again about not having to do anything during the day. In addition, it is also not a hygienic place where you can do your work as a lawyer or a custodian,” the attorney at Consider it Solved by Roseburg and Partners said.
Despite the fact that St. Maarten is currently administered by a caretaker government, it is time to act now, according to Roseburg. “That human rights are being violated on a daily basis in the Pointe Blanche prison and in the police cells in Philipsburg is nothing new. This is something that we have known for quite some time, but what will be done about this in the short term and who is currently monitoring the process? I am not talking about redecorating here and there, but about taking actual steps, so that detainees do not end up in this inhumane ‘hell,’” she said.
“Do not misunderstand me, if you commit a criminal offense you must do your time, but you are still a human being and we are still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, human rights are being violated daily.”
According to the lawyer, it is the rule rather than the exception that detainees are being held for longer than the maximum term of 10 days. This is because the prison currently has a maximum capacity of 70 persons following a policy established by the Prosecutor’s Office after Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
Since she last checked on Sunday, October 20, at least 76 detainees are currently held in prison and five at the police station. These five persons should actually be held in Pointe Blanche, the lawyer said.
“Despite European Union supervision? How is it possible. The moment I find out that my client has been detained for longer than 10 days at the police station, I submit an urgent release request to the Investigating Judge. In response to the lawyer’s request, the Prosecutor takes action. Someone is usually sent home quickly, so that the relevant detainee for whom a request has been submitted can be transferred to Pointe Blanche. All this happens prior to the handling of the urgent request, so that the request of the defence is considered no longer relevant. Instead of my client being released by the Investigating Judge because he is not held in a house of detention, it is said that there is no longer any interest because the detainee has in the meantime been transferred to Pointe Blanche and the request is rejected.
“This is actually not how it should be. After all, if someone has not been transferred to prison after 10 days…the detainee must be released immediately. That the prison is full or not does not affect this. These are legal rules which must be followed. Only here on St. Maarten do these rules not – always – apply.”
Roseburg said it is not clear on the basis of which certain detainees are selected for early release while others do not. “This causes unnecessary tension. You often hear from your clients, ‘Why does he and I don’t?’ In addition, no electronic surveillance can be deployed while this would greatly alleviate the current detention problem.”
In October 2018, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the inhumane conditions under which Italy-born casino boss Francesco Corallo was held in the Philipsburg Police Station. However, the judicial authorities in St. Maarten do not seem to adhere to the ruling, according to Roseburg.
“Okay, the prison is full. There is no money? That is not the prisoner’s responsibility. If you cannot offer decent conditions for detention, you should not proceed with arrests and detention. Many of us do not know the police cells from the inside but believe me these are still degrading. You almost faint from the smell while climbing up the stairs to the cell block.”
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment CPT concluded in its report that a detainee should not stay more than three and never longer than 10 days in the police cells in Philipsburg.
“However, up to now several people have been staying in the police cells for more than 10 days, at the moment five, to be exact. This is a daily violation of Article three of the [European Convention on Human Rights – Ed.] ECHR. They do not have recreation and do not get fresh air. All this takes place in the police cells of our “Friendly Island” St. Maarten,” said Roseburg.
“Again, I ask the question: Do the rights of these prisoners not count? Are we not living in a democratic society? We are dealing with our community here. The government of St. Maarten must offer this protection.”
Security systems still do not work optimally and requests to visit a doctor or the hospital are not being granted. “I have a client who has been urinating blood for five months and who has not seen the doctor to date. In which year do we live? In the Netherlands there is a cell surplus and we here in St. Maarten in 2019 as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands have to deal with this problem? How is it possible? One can think: ‘Yes, the prison is not a five-star hotel.’ That’s correct. However, it should not be forgotten that prisoners have been left in the care of the government and the government is failing. Now that the Cabinet has fallen, who gives priority to the prison? The eyes can no longer be closed. The Kingdom of the Netherlands always has a guarantee function: Article 43 of the Statute,” says Roseburg.
Time for action
“It is time for action now. We can no longer continue like this. I am willing to help, plan to contribute ideas. This is a cry for help. There are talks in the Netherlands about taking over the rule of law, but why cannot be worked hand-in-hand as one would expect from a well-functioning Kingdom with equal partners? This is a Kingdom affair in which short-term measures should be taken in the interest of St. Maarten.
“A new prison must be built. We all know that. Even after renovation [of the current prison – Ed.], we cannot speak of a prison. The arrival of the container cells is also a temporary ‘solution,’ which will ultimately become a long-term solution, as seems to be the case with everything here on St. Maarten. In addition, it is also questionable whether these cells meet the (inter)nationally established laws and regulations,” the lawyer said.
Roseburg has her concerns about when the long-term plans for a new prison will actually become a plan for the short-term. “I am very worried. If something as simple as making a washing machine and dryer available takes so long, after filing a lawsuit about it in 2017, I am not really hopeful. The washing machine and dryer are now in the institution, but still not in use. Will this also take years? Do we have to wait until a fire breaks out, or until a new hurricane comes our way? Why invest money in a bottomless pit while this can be better invested in the construction of the new prison?”