Inmates stage work stoppage at Westgate Correctional Facility

Today, July 8th, 2024, the population of the Westgate Correctional Facility have ceased from all work activities: kitchen, laundry, cleaning, canteen, groundskeeping, etc. To be clear, this is a peaceful protest just as it was this past January when the same action was taken. All lawful orders are being adhered to. The residents of Westgate are reporting to their cells as required during all mandatory lockdown periods. Those who are engaged in mandatory classes will be attending them during this work stoppage. To reiterate, this is a work stoppage only.

In January, one of the key issues that led to the work stoppage was the Department of Corrections refusing to allow for residents within its care to attend funeral services for loved ones; a long-standing policy that had been revoked in recent years. Section 18 of the Prisons Act 1979 affords the Commissioner of Prisons the discretion to allow for the release of persons for compassionate grounds.

On January 23rd, the Westgate Inmate Committee – a group of prisoners who meet with the Department administration quarterly to address the conditions of the facility and needs of the population – met with Commissioner Keeva Joell-Benjamin, then-Acting Assistant Commissioner Dwight Richards, and other senior management to address the issues highlighted during the work stoppage; including funeral attendance. At this meeting, Mr. Richards informed the Committee that he had been given permission by the Commissioner to reinstate a funeral policy and that its criteria would be provided to the population by the end of February.

It wasn’t until the Committee’s April 23rd meeting with the Commissioner and her team that Mr. Richards – still operating as Acting Assistant Commissioner – provided a memo outlining the Departments funeral attendance policy.

Since that memo, at least four residents of Westgate have had loved ones pass and were not allowed to attend the funeral service. This is even with officers (including supervisors) offering to volunteer their time on their days off to escort persons to and from the funeral, addressing the Department’s staffing requirement.

The latest denial came on July 3rd with the new Acting Assistant Commissioner, Darynda Caisey-Brown, stating that the funeral attendance policy is now off the table. This is a policy, supported by law, that no one had yet been able to benefit from since its reinstatement. This has caused much angst amongst the Westgate population and was the tipping point that led to this current work stoppage.

The list of issues at Westgate is vast and it is the hope of the population that this recent, and peaceful, action will draw attention to the host of problems within the Department of Corrections. The Minister of National Security needs to urgently address the issues within Bermuda’s prison system.

The lack of educational, vocational, and rehabilitative courses needs to be addressed. The lack of a transitional housing facility to help persons better re-enter society needs to be addressed. Virtually every Bermudian that comes into the prison system will re-enter society at some point. The education and rehabilitation of each person while incarcerated should be treated as a sacred duty; today it is not. The fabric of our community depends on it.

The conditions of the Department’s facilities need to be addressed. At present, there are two housing units at Westgate that don’t have drinkable water from the unit water fountains or inside of the cells. There are also complaints about yellow water with a foul odor coming out of the shower heads in those units. Under no other circumstance would it be deemed suitable for persons under government care to be housed in such conditions. The fact that persons at Westgate are convicted or remanded in custody awaiting justice does not diminish the need for basic human rights to be administered.

It is the hope of the men at Westgate, that residents at the Prison Farm, Co-Educational Facility, and Right Living House will stand in solidarity with them and, also, cease all work activities. The issues at hand affect all within the Department’s care.

The men of the Westgate Correctional Facility are pleading with the Hon. Michael Weeks, JP, MP to meet with them to address their concerns.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” – Nelson Mandela

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