Justice Minister Richardson: 13 months to get results Additional floor on prison to solve youth detention problem

POSTED: 07/15/13 11:54 AM
Dennis Richardson - painting Mosera
Justice Minister Dennis Richardson, in front of a painting by Ras Mosera, envisions a three-level facility for youth detention – from closed, to half open to entirely open. Photo Today / Hilbert Haar

St. Maarten – By Hilbert Haar – When the country calls, Dennis Richardson answers. At 67, the former Lt. Governor had secured his place in the shadows as St. Maarten’s member of the prestigious Council of State in The Hague, but when he was approached to take the job at the Justice Ministry in the third Wescot-Williams cabinet, he just could not turn his country down. Therefore, he resigned from the Council of State, to take on a job that will be finished by the time the elections roll around next year September. That the government has not nominated a substitute for Richardson in The Hague has a simple explanation: “I have indicated that I want to go back there.”

There is plenty to do during the next thirteen months. Two issues are high on Richardson’s agenda: improving the tattered relationship with the Netherlands and creating a solution for youth detention.

His office on Illidge Road offers a view of the Great Salt Pond. The walls are decorated with paintings from his favorite local artists: Ras Mosera, Max Phelipa and Joe Dominique. His desk is loaded with paper work, though there is also a net in tray that has, on the morning of our interview, the Today newspaper on top.

“I am here until the next elections,” Richardson says. “I have come here as an expert minister, in more or less a crisis-like situation. I assume that by the time of the next elections the crisis will be solved. Then it is up to the politicians again.”

The successor of the boisterous Roland Duncan has seen it all in his career. When the country was placed under higher supervision in 1993, he became Lt. governor. When the island started to stir up things in the Netherlands Antilles with its desire to become autonomous like Aruba, he became the architect behind the scenes that shaped St. Maarten’s country status. “I still admire Richard Gibson Sr for the way he managed to convince Curacao to hold a referendum about the future of the Netherlands Antilles,” he says. The result of that referendum gave St. Maarten the opening it needed to embark on its road to country status.

Richardson does not envision an extended career as a member of any cabinet. “I am 67,” he says, even though he looks at least ten years younger. “It is time for a younger generation to take over. I have never oriented myself in the direction of one particular political party. I find that a rather pleasant position.”

The Justice Minister’s primary concern is the relationship with the Netherlands. “That relationship was very bad and it increasingly became a threat to our country status.”

Those threats come from Members of the Dutch parliament like André Bosman and Ronald van Raak. “The creation of an atmosphere of animosity from within the Dutch Parliament that does not do fully justice to the situation in St. Maarten represents a certain danger. I am in a position to make an attempt to build bridges.”

Richardson is indeed the man for that job: he spent 32 years of his life in the Netherlands, so he understands the Dutch mentality. While his predecessor Duncan often irked politicians in the Netherlands with his in-your-face comments, Richardson prefers a different approach: “I would use more diplomatic terms to express my dissatisfaction,” he says, adding that in the Netherlands a lot has changed. “Look at how populist they operate now.”

In St. Maarten, Richardson points out, there are no parties based on any particular ideology like in the Netherlands. There is also no point: “The social problems our country is facing do not leave space for completely different solutions.”

Looking at the cultural differences between the Netherlands and St. Maarten he inevitably hits upon the subject of corruption: “What is considered corruption in the Netherlands is not corruption in St. Maarten. This is a tribal community. In the Netherlands, you need tough rules. Here you see that politicians only give opportunities to members of their own tribe. This is something we have to get rid of. My son is allowed to take part, but your son too. But you cannot say: my son cannot take party because he is my son.”

In the Netherlands, Richardson discussed this issue with VVD-MP André Bosman. “He told me: it must be public. Donner (the vice-President of the Council of State – ed.) said that maybe we ought to establish a social code of conduct. We ought to put on the table what is allowed and what is a no-no. It does not matter that it is your son, as long as it is made public.”

The Constitutional Court has Richardson’s full support. “I stood at the cradle of its inception. I am a strong proponent of this court. We do not have hundreds of years of experience with a parliamentary system. Our experience is marginal at best, and we do not fish in a very large pond either this is a mechanism to guide the rules of democracy.”

Richardson notes that the Dutch system functions for 80 percent on unwritten rules. “They do not explore the limits of the written legislation. Our country is going through a learning process. We have to go through that, but we have to get to know our limits before we slip up completely.”

Improving the relationship with the Netherlands is among Richardson’s priorities. His predecessor Roland Duncan did not make things any better, what with his confrontational position on the Coast Guard and his established connection to the prostitution industry.

“Yeah, well,” Richardson says soothingly, “Everybody knows Roland. You can say about him what you want. He may be confrontational, but he is not crazy. But we have to tackle the irritations that currently exist.”

One of the projects that are underway concerns the computer systems Actpol and BMS (Border Management System). Under Duncan, Curacao pulled the plug on these systems, because St. Maarten wanted to have control over its own information.

“There was already an agreement to get back into these systems,” Richardson says, adding that he is not claiming any credit for this. He also questions Curacao’s decision to simply pull the plug and cut St. Maarten out of these systems. “In the meantime we reserve the right to conclude that St. Maarten ought to develop its own system that meets international requirements.”

The current agreement is that the Netherlands will provide upgraded software and hardware to St. Maarten. “That has not happened yet, because the upgrade is not completed yet.”

Another hot item is youth detention. “I will make every effort to create a solution,” Richardson says, adding that the first solution will be a temporary one. But the final picture is clear in his mind.

The first option for youth detention was to obtain prison containers from Bonaire the moment they are no longer needed there. It turned out that this would simply take too long.

“On Monday (today – ed.) the renovation of the Pointe Blanche prison begins,” the minister says. Really? We heard that last year, when June 25 was the official starting date. “You can have setbacks with these projects but you should not call that unwillingness,” Richardson responds.

To facilitate the renovation, inmates will be moved to the detention center in Simpson Bay, where renovations have been completed after criticism from the CPT, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

Richardson has another trump card up his sleeve: “We are currently examining how fast Liccom (the contractor for the prison’s renovation – ed.) could build an additional floor on the prison as a temporary facility for youth detention. That solution will be faster than waiting for those containers from Bonaire.”

This additional floor will become available as an expansion for the regular prison once there is a definitive solution for the youth in place, Richardson says. “We are also looking at building a third floor at the prison. Within a couple of years, we could have the most modern prison in the Caribbean. Then we will get kudos from the CPT instead of a kick in the butt.”

And what would that definite solution for the youth be? Richardson: “Our concept is that young people do not belong in the House of Detention at all. For youngsters in the age from 12 to 18 the image of sitting in the House of Detention does not work at all. We want to create a system from a closed youth facility to a half-open and a completely open one. Youth prosecutor Karola van Nie and Richelda Emmanuel of the Rehabilitation Bureau are involved with this project. It has my full support. We are currently searching facilities to make this a reality.”

The Justice Ministry has already eyed a building in Cay Bay that could be used as an open youth facility. The plans for the prison and the ones for the youth facility will be taken out of the old Justice Park project.

“The idea of the Justice Park was not bad at all,” Richardson says, though admitting that the advices about the project (especially from the financial supervisor Cft) are “not favorable.” The minister disagrees though that the construction his predecessor Duncan proposed is a loan that requires a positive advice from the financial supervisor Cft. “If that is a loan, you could call renting a building a loan as well.”

But the minister agrees that the construction was insufficiently transparent: “That created the impression that there was something wrong with the project that some people were going to make money off it at the government’s expense. The construction is not comparable to a loan because it is a BOOT-construction (BOOT stands for Build, Operate, Own and Transfer – ed.). If it were a loan, the government would have to do all kinds of things and pay for them. That was not the case.”

Minister Richardson declined to get into the issue of conditional early release, because it is subject to review by the Constitutional Court. “The parliament has taken a decision about early release and the government has not opposed it. Now we have to wait for the ruling by the Constitutional Court.”

 

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