Antigua's prisoners face rough conditions in colonial-era jail

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Prisoners suffering from chickenpox in a jail in Antigua
Image caption,
It is hoped an expansion will help alleviate overcrowding in the prison

There is no running water, educational classes are suspended because infectious diseases have scared off the teachers and almost 400 inmates are squeezed into a site intended for 150 - minus one who escaped over the weekend.

It is a Monday morning at 1735, Antigua and Barbuda's national prison, which is named after the year it was built.

Boxes of drinking water are being unloaded at the front gates which prisoners must buy, or risk drinking the brackish water from the recreation yard's fire hydrant.

High above the compound, aeroplanes are bringing holidaymakers to the Caribbean island famed for its historical sites.

The prison is one of the few buildings still used for its colonial-era purpose, along with the main police station holding cell, said to have once held the condemned awaiting hanging.

Harsh conditions and extreme overcrowding were among a long list of criticisms levelled against the prison in a recent UN report.

It is not the first time 1735 has drawn international condemnation.

A 2014 US State Department report decried the use of slop pails instead of toilets, poor ventilation leading to stifling cell temperatures, and a kitchen with "insects, raw meat on the ground, stray cats and an overwhelmingly unpleasant odour".

It also pointed to widespread claims of bribery and corruption among guards.

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One former inmate said the prison's food was "terrible"

Prison Superintendent Albert Ward says there is "a problem" with prisoners who get mobile phones and drugs from corrupt officers.

The weekend escapee, who was later found and returned, may also have broken out with a guard's help, but that is still under investigation, he adds.

A multi-million dollar expansion under way will help alleviate overcrowding and will see most cells fitted with flushing toilets and a basin.

It also includes a modern kitchen and administration block, plus water catchments to eventually facilitate running water throughout the prison.

As for the cats, the presence of Convict and her feline offspring have at least reduced reports of prisoners' toes getting bitten by rats, the superintendent adds.

'Not acceptable'

Much of the prison's original structure was destroyed by fire in the 1990s.

The maximum security block, with its tiny individual cells each with a minute barred window, remained intact and is largely unchanged in three centuries.

The original gallows also survived.

Unused since 1991, the small detached structure containing the gallows is currently used to store riot gear and charcoal, but the death penalty is still on the country's statute books.

Lawyer Vere Bird, who has clients in the facility, has been a vociferous campaigner for penal reform.

He alleges that up to 14 inmates are routinely housed in cells designed for six.

Remand prisoners caught in Antigua's sluggish wheels of justice can await trial for years.

Image caption,
Inmates have to improvise when it comes to drying their clothes

"Our constitution states that no persons should be subjected to torture, inhumane or degrading punishment," Mr Bird says.

"Having 14 people in a cell using a slop bucket at night is degrading at best and, in some cases, going on to torture.

"It's not acceptable in the 21st Century."

The woeful sanitation saw an outbreak of the superbug MRSA earlier this year.

Prisons are notorious incubators of disease, and chickenpox - spread through coughing and sneezing - has also run rampant here.

Chickenpox-infected inmates were confined to the prison chapel in an attempt to halt the spread.

Rehabilitative classes usually held in the chapel were suspended and are yet to recommence because the volunteer teachers are afraid of contracting the disease, Superintendent Ward says.

'Faeces everywhere'

Former inmate Prince - not his real name - described 1735 as "filthy".

"There's faeces everywhere; at night you have to stoop over a bucket to do everything in. There's no [toilet] paper; visitors have to bring it in.

"The food is terrible; people brought in food and drinking water for me but some people have nobody to help them."

Prince learned to sew in the prison tailor room but says additional training opportunities are largely non-existent.

"You see the same people coming back in, over and over," he adds.

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This man is the prison's longest serving inmate, having spent 28 years at the jail for murder

Superintendent Ward says that Antigua has no statistics to keep track of the reoffending rate, but for crimes like theft and burglary "it's high".

The country's small population of 90,000 means stigma makes it hard for ex-offenders to find meaningful work after release.

The superintendent is spearheading an initiative which involves inmates visiting local schools to deter at-risk youngsters from pursuing a life of crime.

National Security Minister Steadroy Benjamin says the prison expansion includes provisions for more inmates to learn trades and complete secondary school qualifications.

That cannot come soon enough for campaigners like Mr Bird.

"A prison has to be punishment but it also has to have facilities where persons can improve," he says.

"Antigua was part of the Atlantic slave trade for centuries - yet we are still using the same apparatus to punish our own people."