Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Boat of prisoners

Boats take people to far away places, for leisure and pleasure. For centuries they have taken people away from desperation towards foreign lands in search of freedom and happiness. Not so if you happen to board the Bibby Stockholm.

A few weeks ago investigative magazine Vrij Nederland (VN) published two articles about the conditions of ‘prison boat’ (bajesboot). The boat is anchored in Rotterdam were supposed to provide a ‘temporary’ solution to the overcrowding of the detention service, and the majority of people held in these ‘temporary’ centres are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. According to Minister Donner (Justice) three months is the maximum amount of time people would be detained there. However, VN discovered that many prisoners have been there for up to six months or even a year. The conditions are terrible, overcrowded, and prisoners don’t receive enough medical attention, while staff/guards at the centre are poorly trained to handle of physical and mental stresses and strains of the prisoners. Violence, intimidation, (sexual) abuse, attempts at suicide and self-mutilation are common. The articles caused public outrage, with lots of people unable to believe that such conditions can exit in a ‘civilised’ country like the Netherlands. And it prompted the Ministry of Justice and many parliamentarians to do some ‘damage control’.

A recent report by the Inspectie voor Sanctietoepassing (IST, Inspection for the Implementation of Sanctions) and Raad voor Strafrechtstoepassing en Jeugdbescherming (RSJ, Council for Criminal Law Implementation and Youth Protection) confirmed some VN’s findings, however don’t believe that they are serious enough hit the panic alarm…yet.

The investigation found that privacy of prisoners were “very limited”, and that much of the furniture and utensils used by those detained are in sorry conditions. Prisoners are only given an hour a day to “air” themselves in an enclosed cage outside, and those under observation are given time to breathe in a cel without windows. There is also a severe lack of recreation and sports equipment, which can lead to frustration and boredom, and add to the overall environment which has been called “tense”.

Many of the detained are “apathetic, depressed, discouraged and/or tense’, and the medical care provided is deemed “unsatisfactory”. The psychiatrist is only present twice a week, and with that limited presence the care given is of an “ad-hoc character”. Regarding the time of detention, the investigation found that the average stay was 102 days (which is longer than the 3 months Minister Donner promised), but 56 people have been aboard for more than 6 months, and two people have been aboard for more than a year. A medic on board said that the average detention period is increasing and that at best 3-4 months is more accurate.

The quality of the staff on the detention boat leaves a lot to be desired. There was no mention in the report that staff only receive a few days of training (instead of seven weeks as required), and that they’re not even required to take a test at the end of the training. Many are not familiar with what to do in an emergency situation. The rate of leaving among the staff is also twice as high as in other detention centres, which means that the staff cannot be trained properly and be in the position long enough to develop any commitment or insight into what the job requires.

And worse, prisoners don’t seem to have any possibilities of complaint or recourse to legal action when they feel their rights have been infringed upon. Some complaints by the prisoners have also been withheld by the management of the boat, leaving the prisoners in a very dubious legal and uninformed positions, prone to exploitation and abuse.

Nothing was said about attempted suicides, or the fact that prisoners with a criminal record are often locked up with prisoners with no criminal background. Abuse of power, discrimination, sexual intimiation are of “no issue” aboard the boat.

If these problems are no serious enough, then it begs the question what needs to happen before they are taken seriously. Another fire, or some other catastrophe and maltreatment of asylum seekers, like at the detention centre in Schiphol? And this is happening in a state governed by the rule of law, that is party to various international agreements on the humane treatment of human beings and asylum seekers.

Reporting in “Voor Justitie zijn misstanden ‘verbeterpunten’” [For (the Ministry of) Justice atrocities are ‘points for improvement’], Robert van de Griend, 14-17 Vrij Nederland, 3 juni 2006

Here are pictures of a protest against the prison boat a few weeks ago.

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