Efforts to end “human rights violations” in St Helena’s overcrowded prison have been frustrated by executive councillors’ refusal to consider plans for a new gaol at Half Tree Hollow.
It is thought the acting governor, Owen O’Sullivan, might exercise his right to approve the plans himself, because conditions in HMP Jamestown are so bad.
Any delay is unlikely to affect the ten current inmates in the prison, which has just three cells. Their sentences will end before work on converting Sundale House was due to be completed.
It is not clear whether the councillor’s inaction will hold up conversion work. It was hoped it could be completed in 2014, a year earlier than expected.
The five-strong council argued that it had been told it could not make major policy decisions during an election period, under “purdah” rules imposed by Governor Mark Capes before he left the island on leave.
There has been vigorous local opposition to the Sundale House plan, and approving the scheme might have damaged the councillors’ chances of being voted back in – though they may not intend to seek re-election anyway.
Because the council meets in secret, the thrust of the councillors’ views on the plan is not known. Had they taken it to a vote, it might have been against the scheme.
But the principle of the move had already been agreed by the executive council, meaning it could only be turned down on the grounds of its design – and that had already been approved by the island’s independent planning board.
The acting governor’s report of the meeting said: “It was a constructive discussion with a number of points made. I was advised by members that they believed that they should not make a decision on this during the purdah period and wished to delay consideration of this until the new council.”
The purdah rules do allow the executive council to make decisions on urgent matters.
A statement from The Castle said: “The acting governor and senior officials are currently considering the implications of council’s advice and we are unable to make any further comment at this time.”
Catherine Turner, the island’s human rights co-ordinator, said: “The general feeling is that ExCo had already agreed this and should have made a decision but ducked the responsibility.
“ExCo’s acceptance of the proposal in principle is probably minuted somewhere but that will not be put into the public domain.
“However, this is recorded in the the Land Development Control Plan and the Human Rights Action Plan. Both clearly state that the prison should be moved to Sundale and both have been agreed and accepted as policy by the current ExCo.
“No one is clear what the next step will be.”
Catherine said leaving the decision to the new council might mean a delay until September, given that the election will not take place until 17 July 2013.
She said: “I expect that given the nature and sensitivity of the decision, any new members will want time to read the papers.”
The island’s governor does have the power to take the decision out of councillors’ hands. But Catherine said: “He is off island – the acting governor could do it, but it is thought that that is unlikely.
“The project team are hoping that it will not cause a significant delay as they believe that there is plenty they can be getting on with in preparation in the meantime.
“As far as the prisoners are concerned, most will have finished their sentences before the planned date of the move so it does not effect them directly.
“But it is the rights of those convicted in the next 12 months that will be unnecessarily effected, and we do not know who they are.
“My view is that the poor conditions and human rights violations are well documented and have been known for years, and it has gone on too long.”
Failings raised in the island’s human rights action plan include inadequate ventilation in cells, lack of privacy – even in the toilets – and limited access to the small exercise area.
“The prison is currently housing ten men, three to a cell, and one prisoner has chosen to sleep in an outside police holding cell,” said Catherine, who also serves as a prison visitor.
“It is hot and cramped in the cells. Remand prisoners and sentenced prisoners who are in the high security category are not allowed to leave the prison, so may not work on the farm or on community projects. Therefore they cannot get any outdoor exercise to let off steam.
“It is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Conditions at Sundale House, which currently houses people with severe mental disorders, have also been criticised. The prison plans involve creating a new secure facility for them elsewhere.
Catherine Turner said: “Fortunately our new social work manager, Claire Gannon, is excellent and she has plans in place to get the people out of Sundale and into more acceptable temporary accommodation as quickly as possible. “She is not prepared to wait for the new build to move as she recognises that the conditions at Sundale are unacceptable.”