29 May 2018

Overcrowding in Prisons a Failure of Government Policy Not Rising Crime in East Timor

East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin Prison Overcrowding in Becora prison.
ETLJB 29 May 2018 - Overcrowding in prisons is a serious social problem that is created by and can only be ameliorated by government policy. Penal Reform International notes that overcrowding is a "consequence of criminal justice policy not of rising crime rates, and undermines the ability of prison systems to meet basic human needs, such as healthcare, food, and accommodation.

It also compromises the provision and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes, educational and vocational training, and recreational activities.

Overcrowding, as well as related problems such as lack of privacy, can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide."[1]



On 28 May 2016, The Dili Weekly reported that Becora prison in East Timor is overcrowded.[2] Becora was constructed during the illegal Indonesian occupation. The report cited the Director for Becora prison, Joao Domingos, as stating that "Becora prison can only accommodate 250 prisoners, but currently it hosts 606 prisoners...."

Quoting the Director himself, the report states that Becora gaol has 23 cells for adults that can accommodate 101 inmates. Additional small cell blocks accommodate 80 inmates. There are 139 staff including guards, trainers and auxiliary.

While acknowledging that the prison has limited equipment and human resources and that discussions were underway to transfer prisoners to Gleno and Suai gaols, Director Domingos expressed the view that building more prisons was not the answer because "it is more important that the community is aware they should not commit crimes."

The Director's conceptualisation of the problem is confused and misguided; because of a lack of government policy that is supposed to be implemented by governmental agencies.

Law and Justice civil society organisation, HAK, as reported in The Dili Weekly report reflects a better understanding of the problem, with the HAK Director Manuel Monteiro noting that some prisoners suffer from mental illness and other may carry contagious diseases including tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is yet another pressing public health policy problem for the Government.  TB is spread via inhalation of small particle aerosols (airborne route). When a person with pulmonary TB coughs, sings, laughs or sneezes, M. tuberculosis is generated and carried in droplet nuclei particles..... Depending on the environment, tubercle bacilli can remain suspended in the air for prolonged periods and air currents can carry them throughout a room or building.[3] In a crowded prison cell, the risk of transmission is high.

Airborne precautions are indicated for all patients where pulmonary TB is suspected or proven. Patients with pulmonary TB should be accommodated in negative pressure rooms or Type 5 (respiratory isolation) rooms that are equipped with environmental controls to reduce the risk of transmission of airborne diseases. If this is not possible then the patient should be placed in a single room with en suite from which the air does not circulate to other areas.[3]

Becora prison is therefore a reservoir of uncontrolled pathogens that will enter the community when prisoners are released.

As the HAK Director himself pleaded, the new government must examine the problem of prison overcrowding and create more space, particularly in the case of TB-infected inmates, as well as ensuring access psychiatric services.

The voices of prisoners in the justice system are silenced. No one hears their pleas or cares for their well-being. Deprivation of liberty by force of the law is sufficient punishment in itself. It does not mean that citizens who have violated the criminal law lose all of their basic human rights. Nor should incarceration policy cause much more widespread public health problems.



Warren L. Wright

[1] https://www.penalreform.org/priorities/prison-conditions/key-facts/overcrowding/
[2] http://www.thediliweekly.com/en/news/15601-becora-prison-out-of-room-for-new-prisoners
[3] http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/cda-cdi4003i.htm







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