20 May 2009

Prison Break ..... Samoa Style

Here is a post by our friend Kathy Arp in Samoa. If you think Samoa is paradise think again. A bit long but worth the read.

Where to begin, where to begin….

On Monday this past week, we had our very own prison break, right here in Samoa. How many escaped, you may ask? Forty one, to be exact. Yes, 41 prisoners escaped. How did they accomplish this? Well, it was a combination of factors, unique to the Samoan prison system:

1. The prisoners were actually OUTSIDE the prison gate on work detail, cutting hedges, grass, etc.

2. BECAUSE they were cutting grass and hedges, each one of the 41 prisoners had a sapelu (machete). Yes, they were armed. By the prison itself.

3. Said prisoners who were OUTSIDE the gate, ARMED with bush knives, were being guarded by TWO policemen, who were unarmed, because police in Samoa do not carry weapons.

The prisoners flagged down a bus doing its morning run, and fortunately it was not full of school children, but had two mothers and their children, plus the bus driver. The bus driver said, to the prisoners’ credit, that they did not threaten him, but that they asked him to take them to the government building in town, not to stop for anyone or anything. Being as how they asked so politely, plus they all had bush knives, he decided to comply.

The prison guards, realising that this was not a good way to start a Monday, contacted the police in town. Here is where I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. I’m not sure if police cars went out towards the prison (which is up the road a few miles past our house), or if they waited to see which way the bus was going to come into town. Whatever the plan, it transpired that the bus came down to the main road into town, the road that runs right in front of the mission home, the PBO, the Pesega campus (where three of my children were taking exams at the time) and the temple, and this is where the police decided to regain control of the situation. They parked a police van or two cross ways across the traffic and tried to clear out as many vehicles and pedestrians as possible, then when the bus approached the intersection right in front of the temple, the police, who by this time had acquired rifles, shot out the tires on the bus, thus effectively stopping it in its tracks. But now they still had to get the prisoners off the bus. By the way, this is all happening at 9.00am when everybody is heading to work.

The prisoners kindly let the women and children off the bus, as their beef was not with them. Once the tires were shot out, they even let the bus driver out, because hey! Of what use was he to them now? There was a negotiator who asked the prisoners, “What are you doing, and what do you want?” They wanted to be transported to the government building where their plan was to kneel on the ground in front of the building until a representative would come out and listen to their grievances, which are that the prison isn’t even fit for animals: no proper toilets, food is too little and of poor quality, and they’re not happy with their weekend furloughs (I’ll explain more about this in a moment). Alas, this was not to happen. The prisoners surrendered their knives and were transferred to a police-commandeered bus to return them to the prison.

But wait! Now there are only 40 prisoners! What happened to #41? He somehow managed to escape from a bus that was surrounded by rifle-wielding policemen and decided maybe things would go better for him if he just returned to the prison and nobody would be the wiser, so he began walking back to the prison, thinking he could get back before negotiations were over and the prisoners were returned. Alas, his plan B went awry, as he was picked up by the bus returning the other prisoners.

Several other things are notable about this:

Weekend leave is the one that boggles my mind most often. Prisoners here are given weekends off where they can go home to their families, do whatever. They sign out on Friday evening and have to be signed back in by a certain time Monday morning. For the most part, 99.9% of the time, according to my understanding, THIS WORKS. And we’re not just talking about shop lifters. No, thieves, rapists, murderers, man slaughterers and people guilty of general mayhem can go home on the weekends.
The police don’t carry weapons as a general rule. As far as I know, they never have. Just recently the police have been petitioning to be allowed to carry weapons because more and more of the citizenry are carrying weapons which have been smuggled into the country. (Even the police commissioner was found guilty of gun smuggling, but that’s a whole nother story.)
The fact the police even had transportation capable of bringing this to a close is newsworthy. They’ve been acquiring scooters donated by foreign governments but the rank and file of the police department don’t have transportation. Police vans take the police around to where they need to go. Very often, if a crime is being committed, or has been committed, and you need the police to come, they will say one of several things: (1) No cars available; we’ll come when somebody comes back with a car; (2) No money for taxi; we’ll come when somebody comes back with a car; (3) Can you come get us? Or (4) Will you pay for our taxi? So the fact that they actually had vehicles on hand to stop this thing is a feat in and of itself.
Quite a while ago an outside organization that does prison inspections looked at the one here and said it is quite lacking, thank you very much. But the report was done by outsiders, and one of the things this government does NOT like is the opinions of outsiders. This government likes outsiders’ MONEY, but if you’re not offering to fund/donate something here, keep your mouth shut if it’s all the same to you.

Another thing about this was an observation made by the head of Human Resources here for the church. (He happens to be an outsider, but he’s Niuean, so he’s not TOO FAR outside.) His office faced the street on which the shooting occurred, and he ran outside to tell the security guys to slam the gates, etc. – basically lockdown the entire church compound. But when he went out, the security guards were heading down the road to get a closer look – they had abandoned their posts. When asked, “What the ?...” he was told, “Oh, is okay. This don’t happen in Samoa.” Well, hello! It just did. He had been transferred here from Fiji, and he has some experience with uprisings and coups and things like that, and he believes that we better be prepared for more of this, that once some group is brave enough to make their displeasure known in this manner, it’s just a matter of time before the next group, and the next group does it. The government is ripening with unrest anyway over their heavy-handed decision to switch to Right Hand Drive vehicles and change the side of the road on which we drive. People are tired of the corruption going on and nothing being done about it.

For example, remember I mentioned the Police Commissioner who was caught smuggling guns? Despite an outside inquiry (to be fair it had to be done by outsiders) that said he at the least needed to be sacked from his job, - nothing.

There have been embezzlements at high levels in the police and health ministries and the University. They’ve been investigated, and – nothing.

A little over two months ago there was a rape at NUS – it was an evening function up there celebrating the anniversary of the University. Alcohol was being served, even though there were students in attendance. The boy involved turns out to be the son of one of our higher placed police officers. The girl is the niece of our newly elected Vice Chancellor, who was school mates with the boy’s father. It has not been investigated further. When the newspaper keeps pressing for information, they are told that the families did a traditional ifoga (repentance/forgiveness thing) and since the boy had been forgiven, no investigation needs to happen. The Samoa Victim’s group says, “Hey, glad you’ve forgiven him, but it still needs to be dealt with through the courts.” Nothing will come of it.

So, the country is ripening.

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