Nuku'alofa -- The current overcrowding of the Hu’atolitoli Prison and its psychiatric facility is a major concern for Tonga Prison Commissioner Semisi Tapueluelu.
More and more convicted criminals are being given suspended prison sentences because there is simply not anywhere to incarcerate them.
The issue of providing facilities for prisoners and appropriate care for mentally ill people has been a long-standing problem in Tonga.
As the economic system and lifestyles have changed and while policing and the courts have developed, the prison has not been able to keep up. In recent years increasing numbers of drugs and alcohol offenders and the psychiatric illnesses accelerated by substance abuse have caused a crisis for the prison system.
Dr. Mapa Puloka, the head psychiatrist at Vaiola Hospital, said he had been campaigning for a psychiatric facility for Hu’atolitoli since 1992. However, it did not become a reality until 2019, when the psychiatric dormitory at Hu’atolitoli was completed. Built outside of the main compound, in a secure area, the facility currently accommodates only eight patients.
There are, however, 54 psychiatric patients who have been committed to care in Tongatapu. At the moment, 40 psychiatric patients are kept at Vaiola Hospital and 14 at Hu'atolitoli, where they are looked after by full-time nurses and attended daily by Dr. Pita Pepa.
The prison commissioner said the state of psychiatry throughout the country needs to be administered properly.
“If we bring in all the outpatients, there are over 1,000,” said Semisi.
In the outer islands, most psychiatric patients are looked after by their families, but if they become out of control, they are sent to Tongatapu. Some have no families.
He said it is only when a psychiatric patient in the outer islands has committed a severe criminal offense, or has killed others, that they are sent to Hu'atolitoli Prison for treatment.
The working procedure between Vaiola Hospital and the psychiatric facility at Hu'atolitoli is that the mentally ill patients are kept at Vaiola.
While those who occasionally get very angry and inspired to take violent actions are sent to Hu'atolitoli. Others who are mentally ill but are active in doing work are also sent to Hu'atolitoli.
Tapueluelu said Hu'atolitoli has 13 male patients and one female patient. Five males were who were considered to be dangerous were transferred to one of the inner cell blocks in the main compound. The only woman patient is accommodated in a facility where the six female prisoners at Hu'atolitoli are kept.
The main compound at Hu'atolitoli was built in 2010. High walls with barbed wire and spotlights surround two cement cell blocks that can accommodate a total of 102 male prisoners. The compound was constructed at a cost of $1.4 million (US$618,000) and funded by the government of the People's Republic of China. The prison currently has about 116 inmates including psychiatric patients.
The government needs to construct at least two more cell blocks to double the capacity of the prison, but construction has been deferred because there is not enough space inside the compound to build them.
Tapueluelu admitted the Justices of the Supreme Court had expressed their concern that there are not enough prison cells available and the only solution is for the courts to suspend the imprisonment sentences of offenders for the foreseeable future. (Tonga Wires/PacNews)