Suva, Fiji - Prisons around the globe have been particularly challenged by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic due to the high risk that the infection can spread quickly through the densely populated prisons. To try and stop the virus from entering the prisons in the first place, many countries have imposed restrictions on contact, visitation, and representation in court to protect both inmates and prison officers from the virus.
In Fiji, although all 18 COVID-19 patients have recovered, and the movement restrictions imposed by the government are slowly being eased, the government remains vigilant in its management of the pandemic within the country to prevent further spread and control the pandemic as much as possible. To protect the prisons, the Fiji Corrections Service has prevented visitors, including legal counsel, family and friends, from entering the prisons.
However, cutting off all contact with the outside world is not a sustainable solution, neither from a human rights perspective nor a practical perspective, and discontent with harsh measures have caused breakouts and riots in some countries. To address this challenge in Fiji, the Fiji Corrections Service (FCS) sought to establish a system through which inmates could use video conferencing facilities to have ‘face-to-face’ meetings with their lawyers and visitation time with their families.
The Fiji Access to Justice Project, funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), supported the FCS in setting up the remote conferencing facilities through the provision of laptops and data packages.
Prisoners have been able to meet their children, spouses, siblings and parents living in Fiji and overseas through the video conferencing facilities. For many of them, they have not been able to see their relatives in years, due to the travel distance required to come to the prison. Among the prisoners accessing the remote visitation facilities was a woman serving a life sentence, whose son is studying abroad. She had not seen her son in years, and could not withhold her tears of happiness when she saw his face on the monitor.
Commissioner of the FCS Commander Mr. Francis Kean said, “This is an historic moment for the Fiji Corrections Service. We are working hard to ensure that the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners are upheld within our prisons. Ensuring that inmates are able to access legal counsel and continue their basic rights to visitation was important to us, particularly in the complex and uncertain situation presented by the global pandemic. With this technology, we have been able to protect the health and safety of the inmates and our officers, while upholding the basic rights of inmates. We are thankful for the generous support from the EU and the UNDP Access to Justice project, without which we would not have achieved this.”
The video conferencing facilities had the additional benefit of linking into the existing Court system to allow for remote representation during the recent Supreme Court seating. Maximum and medium-security corrections centres in Naboro, Nasinu, Suva, Lautoka and Ba were connected to the Courts for the first time, which enabled inmates to attend trials from the facilities, reducing exposure of inmates, corrections officers, judges and court officials.
Acting Chief Justice, the Honourable Kamal Kumar said it was indeed a historic event.
“Proceedings went quite well and it was great to see that FCS officers assisting the Court and the inmates during the course of the proceeding,’’ Acting Chief Justice Kumar said.
“We can continue to call all matters listed to fix hearing dates or give directions via Skype for Court of Appeal and Supreme Court matters. Our staff will work closely with FCS officers to ensure that matters dealt via skype are conducted without technical issues,’’ he added.
Ambassador of the EU Delegation for the Pacific His Excellency Sujiro Seam said, “This pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for the justice sector and the corrections services. I am proud that we were able to support these remote video conferencing facilities for the FCS. This support, through the Fiji Access to Justice Project, is fully in line with the priority given to digital issues as part of the EU Agenda for the years to come.”
UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative Levan Bouadze said, “The COVID-19 pandemic context has required quick analysis and decisive action to put in place solutions to protect the health and wellbeing of all Fijian citizens. This support to the prisons has activated a new level of distancing and respect for basic human rights by the prisons, and the Courts. UNDP will continue to support the justice sector in Fiji with initiatives that empower the people to access justice. We thank the EU for the flexibility they have given that has allowed us to work with the Government of Fiji to respond quickly to the particular needs of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice, in particular for impoverished and vulnerable groups. It does so by empowering people to access their legal rights and services, strengthening key justice institutions to deliver improved services, and strengthening the capacity of CSOs to deliver justice accompaniment services, with a special focus on supporting persons with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
As the impact of the pandemic has urged global efforts to accelerate towards the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU and UNDP work with the Fijian people and government through the Fiji Access to Justice Project to leave no one behind and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
For media queries, please contact:
UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji : Tomoko Kashiwazaki, Effective Governance Programme| Email: email@example.com | Phone: +679 331 2500, or Mobile: +679 942 2193
EU: Communications Unit, Kamni Narayan | Email: Kamni.NARAYAN@eeas.europa.eu | Phone: +679 3313 633, ext. 115 or Mohammed-Nazeem Kasim | Email: Mohammed-Nazeem.KASIM@eeas.europa.eu | Phone: +679 3313 633 ext. 110 or Mobile: +679 9920 597