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Inside the grim prisons of Vanuatu

by mnews

On the side of the road heading into Port Vila town centre a woman brandishes a newspaper, hawking it to passing traffic.
“JUSTICE FOR ALICE” is the arresting headline.
“Who’s Alice?” I ask our colleague, Lagi Toribau, who we’re working with in Vanuatu.
“She was murdered by her partner last year”, he says, quietly. It’s an infrequent crime here.
We buy the Vanuatu Daily Post, and read of how the Vanuatu Supreme Court has sentenced Philip Jimmy – who was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend, Alice Karis – to 26 years in prison. The paper describes the medical evidence showing she’d died following a vicious, prolonged and deliberate attack.
Half an hour later I find myself sitting next to Alice’s killer in Vanuatu’s maximum security prison. They’re grim, the prisons in Port Vila. The men’s remand and maximum security jail was built by the British in 1942 and it appears little has changed since then. It’s concrete, small, dirty, dismal. There are currently 46 men locked up, down from 54, an inmate says, a few weeks ago.
Does that reduction in numbers make a difference to what it’s like to be here?
“So much. When the muster is high the number per cell can rise to eight.”
Right now, there are six men in each of those cells, which measure maybe three metres by six. They sleep on squabs flattened to possibly three centimetres, on the concrete floor. We’re interviewing in one of these caged spaces. There are five of us present, and even at that number – three lower than max – the heat is suffocating.

Outside, much of the compact, walled courtyard is slimy wet with pooled water, the result of the men washing their laundry. You’d think the water might help bring down the temperature. Instead, the air is sodden with humidity.
We’d filmed in New Zealand prisons before and jumped through bureaucratic hoops to do so, escorted every second by multiple guards. But here, we’re let in by friendly corrections officers and then left to do our work. They’re present, in the guardhouse, or somewhere nearby, but for all intents and purposes we’re on our own, without even security cameras evident.
So when a fight breaks out between two inmates – they’re madly throwing punches at each other’s faces – I wonder if this will be the moment when it all turns bad, escalates to something; remembering that we are, after all, in a maximum security prison, and we don’t even know what most of these men are in here for.
I needn’t stress. Almost immediately the inmates are laughing, as one of the fighters runs away, around the laundry block to the other side of the courtyard. A guard has appeared and he’s laughing too. He says, simply, by way of explanation: “There are a lot of people with mental problems in here.”
If they don’t arrive with mental health issues, it’s hard to imagine they’d leave without them; it seems so bleak here, with so little to do. But what we see speaks to the resourcefulness and indefatigability of human beings, wherever they may be.
In one cell an inmate sits on the floor, pencilling a series of precise architectural drawings. Another talks of how he does push-ups and laps of the courtyard to keep fit. Looking at this boxed-in space, you figure a lap might take 30 seconds – a minute, tops. Repeat circuits must be dizzying.
An inmate motions to our cameraman, his hand circling by his head in the international sign for “movie”. It turns out he’s asking if we would film them singing.
The men asked if we could film them. It was a surprise when they began singing in beautiful harmony.

The men asked if we could film them. It was a surprise when they began singing in beautiful harmony.

We have no idea what to expect but we roll, as 20 inmates begin to fill the air of the prison – and beyond – with their song; a song written by the man who’d asked us if we could film. It’s a song about Jesus, a song about being in prison. We are taken aback at its beauty: not only the quality of the voices and the intricate harmonies, but at the evident pride in their performance. We guess there’s not often an opportunity to perform for an audience. If this were one of those television talent shows, the judges would be in tears.
And then from the corner of the courtyard near the exit, clapping and cheering erupts – though it’s nothing to do with the song.
“One of our friends is being released today,” an inmate says, his face all smile. He appears genuinely rapt, looking forward, you imagine, to the day it’s his turn.
Amos is locked up in Port Vila's minimum/medium security prison, with more than 50 other inmates.

Amos is locked up in Port Vila’s minimum/medium security prison, with more than 50 other inmates.

Only a few of the prisoners speak English and this man’s is good; he’s a natural conversationalist. I have no idea whether what he says is true, of course, and the sentencing notes I check later don’t refer to his background or personal circumstances. But he’s engaging as he explains he’s a civil engineer, that he trained in New Caledonia, worked at the largest mining company there, did a stint working in Paris. He says he has three children back in New Caledonia, the eldest of whom is 22. When I remark that he doesn’t look old enough to be the father of a 22-year-old, he smiles, and tells me he is 33.
Yes, those maths are quite something.
And then this prisoner in the denim shorts and the red singlet with the missing front tooth introduces himself as Philip Jimmy, the man in today’s paper.
And he says he has a message he wants to get out.
All of this is fascinating to us, but peripheral. Stuff Circuit is here to meet and interview six Indonesian fishermen who murdered their captain while fishing on the high seas, between the Easter Islands and Fiji, in 2016.
We were told of the case by Tim McKinnel, with whom we’d worked closely on the Teina Pora miscarriage of justice case. McKinnel was the private investigator whose work took Teina’s case all the way to the Privy Council, where his convictions for the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett, were quashed.
We were intrigued with McKinnel’s current research, for Greenpeace, about modern-day slavery in the distant-water fishing fleet: human rights abuses on tuna long-liners which can be at sea for months, sometimes even years.
He was looking into this case of the six young men imprisoned for murder; a case which seemed to epitomise concerns over slave labour but which no authorities had investigated. What were conditions like on that boat, the Tunago number 61? Why did these young men murder their captain? Did anything drive their mutiny?
Riva says conditions on the tuna boat were hellish.

Riva says conditions on the tuna boat were hellish.

So we meet Riva, a shy, quiet, 21-year-old from Batam, Indonesia.
We sit on the concrete floor of the cell he shares with five other men and he speaks of how he was recruited as a fisherman on the promise of a salary of US$300 (about NZ$430) a month – good money, to him, since he was unemployed. But he never saw a cent of it.
Riva describes how his job was to roll in the lines and hooks on that tuna long-liner, but because he’d never before been a fisherman and didn’t get any training on the boat, he made mistakes. And when he did, he says, the captain would slap and kick him. Riva tells of the hellish conditions on that boat: sleeping just three or four hours a night, working 18 or 20 hour days, through the night. Forced to eat pork – he’s Muslim – and fish bait.
They were at sea for four months until the night they killed their captain, bursting into his cabin in the night, armed with whatever weapons they could find. They considered throwing his body overboard, but decided his family deserved to see him – so they built a coffin and put him in the freezer.
Five minutes up the road the other five Indonesian prisoners are locked up in minimum/medium security.
Baby-faced Andi, who’s 24, frequently giggles, when he gets embarrassed because he thinks his English isn’t good enough. But actually, he conveys perfectly what he wants to say, especially when he describes how after he was convicted of murder he rang his mother to apologise for the shame he had brought upon his family, and to offer an explanation: “My emotions took over my thoughts.”
Andi is the eldest of three; he has two younger sisters, and as we sit on his bed in his cell, he tells me his heart is broken.

In the minimum/medium security prison, there are sarongs tied along the rims of the bunks, a small attempt at giving ...

Toby Longbottom
In the minimum/medium security prison, there are sarongs tied along the rims of the bunks, a small attempt at giving the men some privacy.

It’s marginally more comfortable here than in the maximum security prison. There are still six men to a room, but at least their thin mattresses are on wooden-slatted beds (which the prisoners make themselves), rather than concrete. There are sarongs tied along the rims of the bunks, curtain-like; some stab at privacy.
But again, it’s grim. We go to film in the ablutions block but don’t get far because of the smell. An inmate washes his clothes on the floor, with the help of a big wooden stick. Another inmate says the place is ridden with bedbugs.

Penfold with tuna fisherman Andi, who rang his mother to apologise for the shame he brought on the family after his ...

Toby Longbottom
Penfold with tuna fisherman Andi, who rang his mother to apologise for the shame he brought on the family after his conviction.

It’s telling, then, that Andi thinks life here is better than it was on the Tunago number 61.
On the walls of the main office of the Vanuatu Department of Correctional Services is a series of posters explaining the law. One, in English, says simply: “RAPE IS A CRIME.” Another, in Bislama, is about “domestik vaelens”.
And it turns out that from within those prison walls at maximum security, is someone who also now wants to champion that cause.
Philip Jimmy’s crime was horrendous. He was drunk after a night out in town, when he assaulted his girlfriend Alice Karis. She suffered massive head injuries after his repeated vicious blows. Alice was in her 30s and had three children.
Local media reported that Jimmy’s 26-year sentence was the “harshest ever handed out by a court in Vanuatu for a spouse-killer”, in a country where domestic violence is a growing issue.
And now it appears that spouse – Alice’s killer Philip Jimmy – has had some time to think about what he did. He explains that the message he wants us to take from him, from here, is for the Vanuatu Daily Post and the Vanuatu National Council of Women. He has a relevant voice, he says, because he wants to help educate men: to urge them not to do what he did.
“I know what I did was wrong. The judge told me I was a jealous man and I was very angry. I would not justify myself. I didn’t control myself.
“I should have my self-control before taking actions. I stand up today to tell my story. I want to admit publicly that I was wrong.”
He tells us he will never forget what he did that night, and he says, repeatedly: “I want to help you, I want to help you respect your wife, your girlfriend, your mum, your grandmother.”
The prisoners here in Port Vila have been friendly. Welcoming, even.
And Philip Jimmy seems genuine in his remorse and desire for others to learn from the consequences of his deadly anger. It seems the least we can do is to pass his message on.

It is telling that the men say prison life is better than being on the Tunago number 61.

Toby Longbottom

It is telling that the men say prison life is better than being on the Tunago number 61.

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