The Prison System in Papua New Guinea

The modern prison system in PNG has a relatively short history. For much of the colonial period the imprisonment of offenders, usually for short periods, was administered as an integral part of the larger system of ‘native administration’. Prisons were viewed by colonial officials as educational institutions in which prisoners learned about the ways of the Europeans and acquired respect for the authority of the colonial government. ‘Education’ consisted primarily of physical labour and prisoners were utilised in a range of public works from grass-cutting to road construction. Every government station had its own gaol under the control of the resident magistrate who served simultaneously as judge, jury, prosecutor and jailer. The first prisons provided important sources of recruitment for some of the early members of the ‘native constabulary’, as well as offering other Papua New Guineans employment in some of the only minor positions in the colonial government that were then open to indigenes.

The current prison system has its origins in the process of institutional modernisation that commenced in the late 1950s. This involved the gradual dismantling of the old administrative model of colonial control and its replacement with the institutional framework of a modern justice system in anticipation of eventual independence and statehood. The first stage of this process was completed in 1957 with the establishment of a separate prisons branch under the Corrective Institutions Ordinance.

Responsibility for the administration of Papua New Guinea’s prison system now lies with the PNG Correctional Service (CS) which was established as a state service and disciplined force under the Constitution. The mission of the CS is to enhance the safety of the community by providing secure and humane containment and rehabilitating detainees. For many years, the CS was the most neglected of PNG’s law and justice agencies. Unlike the police and courts, CS institutions tend to be located away from urban centres and, hence, from public view. The larger institutions have been described as ‘green prisons’, beginning as prison farms with large open spaces and barrack-type accommodation surrounded by high security fences.

Providing secure containment has been a major and growing challenge in the post-independence period with regular prison breakouts—often en masse. For example, around 60 inmates were reported to have escaped from Bomana prison in September 2009. According to an unnamed CS source, the escape occurred because of a shortage of warders who did not turn up to work due to a pay dispute. A month later, newspapers reported that almost 500 inmates who claimed that they had not been fed for two days scaled the four-metre fence enclosing Buimo prison but were quickly prevented from escaping by armed wardens. After a daring breakout in January 2010 from Bomana prison, the Prime Minister dismissed the Minister for Correctional Services and suspended the Correctional Services Commissioner. Many mass escapes appear to have the tacit approval of prison staff and are often linked to industrial disputes between wardens and CS headquarters. These breakouts contribute, in turn, to localised ‘crime waves’ in the nearest town. Lack of adequate government support, overcrowded, outdated and poorly maintained facilities and sub-standard staff accommodation have contributed to low morale on the part of CS personnel. Approximately one-third of the prison population—rising to 50 percent in some institutions—consists of remandees awaiting trial. Some wait for periods of two years and upwards before their cases are heard. Delays in court proceedings have added greatly to internal pressures within the prison system. While correctional services have received significant levels of Australian aid, many institutions continue to experience great difficulties in feeding, clothing and accommodating growing numbers of inmates.

Unsanitary conditions in some facilities threaten the health of staff, their families and detainees. Several facilities, including staff accommodation, have been condemned by health authorities as ‘unfit for human abitation’. Similar conditions are found in police cells which are often used to hold inmates when space in CS facilities is unavailable. In September 2009, a detainee at Lae Central police station was suspected of having cholera, causing panic among the other 78 detainees and later the wider community when he escaped from hospital. Inspection of the police cells revealed blocked and overflowing ablution facilities, a condition shared among many police and prison cells. Prisoners in high-risk detention at Buimo prison in Lae told reporters that they had not had a proper shower for the previous three years. A number of deaths due to outbreaks of contagious diseases in prisons have recently been reported, but these problems are not new.

Convicted inmates and remandees have not always been separated in practice and resource shortages have also impacted on the capacity of the CS to provide separate facilities for juvenile inmates as required by law. Despite the ‘correctional’ tag and the commitment of many within the service to the ideal of rehabilitation, the rehabilitation of detainees remains undeveloped in many facilities and heavily reliant on church initiatives. Legal provisions also place constraints on the use of prison labour. Some prisons, like Port Moresby’s Bomana prison, have active gang sub-cultures and, as with prisons elsewhere, significant numbers of inmates are released from PNG’s prisons with a heightened commitment to criminal and anti-social activity. Escapes and links between inmates and outside criminal activities have been attributed to prisoners’ growing use of mobile phones. In February 2009, the Commissioner for Correctional Services banned visitors from carrying mobile phones following fears that a recent upsurge in armed holdups was being orchestrated from within prisons.

There are currently 20 gazetted correctional institutions in PNG. These include Bomana (National Capital District), Buimo (Lae), Baisu (Mount Hagen), Kerevat (East New Britain), Kavieng, Manus (Lorengau), Lakiemata (Kimbe), Daru (Daru), Giligilii (Alotau), Biru (Popondetta), Beon (Madang), Boram (Wewak), Vanimo (Vanimo), Bundaira (Kainantu), Bihute (Goroka), Barawagi (Kundiawa), and Bui-Iebi (Mendi). The size of individual facilities and number of detainees varies considerably. At one end of the scale, Buimo has over 800 detainees, closely followed by Bomana. At the other end, Manus has about 40 detainees. Beon, just outside of Madang, is one of the larger facilities with a detainee population of around 350 in 2002. It has recently been upgraded as part of Australia’s aid program. There are also a number of smaller rural lockups that are administered jointly with the Department of Provincial and Local Level Government. The overall detainee population in 2002 was around 3200–3500 with around 92 percent of detainees being adult males, 4 percent females, and 4 percent being male juveniles. Data on the CS is difficult to obtain.

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