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EDITORIAL- Mr Golding's intervention, Mr Witter's obligation

Published:Friday | February 12, 2010 | 2:00 AM

We are heartened by Prime Minister Bruce Golding's swift and unequivocal response to the report that investigators from the Office of the Public Defender were on Wednesday barred from entering the Horizon Remand Centre to gather information on the unrest.

According to Earl Witter, the public defender, his investigators were offered varying explanations by the correctional service for its action. First, there was the claim that the facility was being cleaned in the aftermath of the reported riots; then it offered that areas of the facility were being treated as a crime scene and could not be disturbed.

Mr Witter, not unreasonably, has other suspicions.

"We have grave misgivings that forensic evidence could vanish in the 'clean-up'," he complained to the PM. Which, of course, is entirely plausible.

Inmates' anger

Monday's riot at Horizon, triggered, apparently, by inmates' anger over a lack of water and unhygienic conditions, left, according to official figures, 40 detainees and nine warders with injuries.

Some of the detainees remain in hospital, which suggests, we surmise, that their injuries are more than superficial. However, there has not been any information from the authorities on the specific injuries sustained, or the present condition of those who were in the fracas.

It is important that we know. Indeed, as many people will recall, eight years ago when there was a riot at the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre, prison officials initially attempted to pass off as inconsequential the injuries suffered by inmates.

It turned out, as was very publicly revealed in one of those commissions of enquiry whose reports tend to get lost in the dusty files of bureaucrats, the St Catherine uprising was barbarously put down by warders and soldiers. Large numbers of prisoners suffered broken bones - and worse.

Doing his job

Mr Witter's job, which he was attempting to do, is to ensure that the constitutional rights of all citizens of Jamaica, including those who may be imprisoned, are not abused by the State. The public defender ought not to be fettered, by unreasonable behaviour or inappropriate actions by officials of the State, from fulfilling that role.

Mr Golding was, therefore, correct to insist that he be shown justification why Mr Witter's investigators were prevented from entering Horizon, and to have declared that he will not tolerate unwarranted obstructions.

Mr Witter, of course, can help his own cause by doing more to build awareness of, and trust in, the Office of the Public Defender. We suspect that both, at present, are at a low premium.

He might start, we suggest, by fulfilling some basic obligations - like completing and sending annual reports to Parliament, as is required by the law. It was recently disclosed that reports for at least two years were outstanding.

In the circumstances, Mr Witter will appreciate our observation that while it is worthwhile to talk and reach the headlines when circumstances such as Horizon arise, it is also important that people be given hard, factual data, inclusive of specific outcomes, by which to determine the provenance of his office.

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