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Behind the curtain of Samoa’s criminal justice system

28 Apr 2023

| Author: Reweti Kohere

Less than five minutes from our hotel in Apia, the headquarters of Samoa’s police looks like a fortress. But inside, people return strangers’ smiles.

After travelling to Samoa to run a two-day workshop to teach the country’s lawyers the art of cross-examination, a group of New Zealand barristers and judges is getting a peek behind the curtain of Samoa’s criminal justice system.

Visiting the Pacific nation’s principal law enforcement agency is the first stop on the day-long tour, and Police Commissioner Auapa’au Logoitino Filipo and two of his deputies, Papalii Monalisa Keti and Lafaitele Herbert Aati, are welcoming. Inside a meeting room, blue curtains are drawn and two air conditioning units are on full blast. Ring binders fill bookcases. On a wall, Samoan police badges are blown up on two posters. In between them is a sign that reads “Police”. A bird’s-eye picture of a prison complex hangs elsewhere in the room.

The high-ranking trio is dressed in crisp, white shirts, blue lavalava, and black jandals. Small Samoan flags are embroidered on their sleeves. Epaulets, badges, and other regalia complete their attire. Filipo, a former officer himself for 24 years, told Radio Polynesia he was honoured and humbled by his appointment to the top role in mid-2022. “All the glory goes to God,” he said.

We have an informal chance to ask them anything, Filipo tells us. So District Court Judge Gus Andrée Wiltens takes him up on the offer: how big is Samoa’s police force?

Some 900 sworn and non-sworn members, the commissioner replies, although redundancies, turnover, and more attractive work opportunities overseas are biting into the force’s full complement of more than 1,000 officers. Take, for instance, seasonal work in places like New Zealand and Australia. Filipo says even police sergeants are accepting the job opportunities for the better pay they’ll get to support their families.

“We don’t stop them [moving overseas],” the police commissioner says. “Whatever is good for their families.”

On Samoa’s crime rate, Aati says the trend is tracking downward. Family disputes were common during the pandemic; burglaries are happening with increasing frequency. The country is still the safest place in the Pacific, though. “That’s why we call ourselves ‘the paradise of the Pacific’,” the deputy commissioner says.

Much of that attitude is helped by taking a community approach to preventing and reporting crime. Aati explains the country’s matai system had led, in one instance, to the handing over of suspects after the police spoke with a village chief. Communities are the police’s eyes and ears, he says.

In Apia, however, the lack of village councils means the police rely on communicating with the public through traditional forms of media like radio, and newer means like podcasting. The latter, Keti says, is to try and reach younger Samoans who don’t typically listen to the radio like older generations do.

It’s a brief meeting. Group photos are taken and then we’re accompanied to the cells. Overseen by Inspector Albert Matautia and a team of eight, the watchhouse keep has as many as five cells, one of which holds only women. Asked how his team deals with people on drugs or impaired by alcohol, Matautia’s go-to solution is food. In his experience, feeding agitated people is an effective way of calming them down.

As for juveniles, Matautia observes how “soft” the younger generations are. “They take everything to heart,” he says, adding that more training and support is needed to help them. Their penmanship, for example, must improve.

New Zealand schools are dealing with similar issues of writing and literacy, we respond. Matautia is surprised to learn of the decline in quality. The 52-year-old, who moved to Samoa from New Zealand when he was 19, says New Zealand’s education system was good-quality in his day.

‘You’re royalty’

We leave the headquarters, pile into a police van and make our way through Apia’s CBD.

As we approach intersections, our full police escort – one vehicle in front, two behind us – carves a line through traffic brought to a standstill; blue and red lights suddenly beam. Behind us, the harbour slowly recedes. The surrounding vegetation thickens as we travel the capital’s back streets. The police officer driving us occasionally puts his arm out his window and waves it back and forth at oncoming traffic; they react by slowing down or moving to the side of the road. Their brows furrow as we pass them. The driver’s front-seat companion tells us, “You’re royalty.”

A fifteen-minute drive from the police headquarters, in Apia’s west, are 41 hectares that were used for much of the 2007 South Pacific Games. There’s Faleata Golf Course, the Tuanaimato Sports Complex, the Samoa Aquatic Centre, and even the Tuaefuefu Methodist Church. South of the Samoa squash courts, “Baby Shark” can be heard. Children shout with joy, clapping to the beat, following along with the song’s hand actions. Teenage girls carry blue chairs for us to sit on as we’re told an earlier visit, from students of the Missionary Infant Pre-school at Moamoa, has gone over time. I spot coloured hand prints on the surface of water tanks. Waiting under the shade of a tree, we absorb the Campus of Hope, run by the Samoa Victim Support Group (SVSG).

Founded in 2005 by president and CEO Siliniu Lina Chang, SVSG was established to care, support, and help victims of sexual crimes. But, after handling its first few cases, the non-governmental organisation started receiving requests from victims of other crimes. Nearly 20 years later, SVSG protects and promotes the rights of women, children, and the vulnerable, especially the right to be free from abuse.

Children from the missionary pre-school start snaking their way from the fale, a conga line of hands-on-shoulders and curiosity as they notice a group of older people sitting underneath a tree. Some kids wave and others stare as their carers usher them toward their transport. With one visit finished, another begins. We walk up toward the fale. Rows of children – the youngest in the front, the oldest in the back – sit cross-legged. Our delegation sits in front of them. One by one, Samoan flower “ula”, or necklaces, are placed over our heads.

‘He will provide’

SVSG Financial Controller Tafatoa Sam Fruean stands up, welcomes us, and explains the refuge is the only place the children trust because most of their families have shunned them.

Reported statistics indicate that in 2020, SVSG was referred a total of 3,360 cases, including assault, rape, incest, domestic violence, and child abuse. Of that total, nearly a third were cases of sexual violence. Three-in-10 were against children up to 18 years old. The group also dealt with 3,025 cases of domestic violence, of which 635 were committed against children.

SVSG is the only organisation of its kind in the country, we hear. And its shelters are largely sustained by the generosity of local and overseas churches and organisations, plus a strong belief that “He will provide”, Fruean says.

A teenage girl starts chanting then clapping in particular rhythms. The other children repeat her actions. Having warmed them up and instilled confidence in them, the leader then heads to the right-hand side. She and her peers pick up ukuleles and another picks up drumsticks. They play some introductory chords, and the melody and harmony of “Amazing Grace” fill the fale.

The children perform four more songs, including a rendition of Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up and a choreographed “C-Pop”, or Chinese pop, a number from the older kids. Their Chinese teacher stands nearby, proudly. New Zealand criminal defence barrister Marie Dyhrberg KC thanks them all for their generous welcome. The Campus of Hope is “so peaceful, serene, and safe,” she says. “It’s a place full of love. That’s all we want in life: to be loved and to love others.”

Judge Andrée Wiltens has also noticed how much love fills the campus. “But what I also see is a family,” he says. Fruean thanks the pair. “You are right: we are family,” he says. “It is not easy work. They are not our children. They are the children of our country.”

We learn that many buildings were funded by overseas donors – a shelter, which in 2021 started providing refuge to mothers escaping domestic violence, was financed by the Japanese embassy, Fruean says. The children’s school was funded by an Australian, too. One shelter was funded by Digicel, the Pacific arm of Australian telco provider Telstra.

Various shelters are dedicated to different age cohorts: the “House of Hope” is for children aged three to 13; the “House of Dreams” is for those 14 and up; and the “House of Blessings” is for toddlers, babies, and newborns. As we enter the nursery, a two-week-old baby is sleeping soundly in their cot as two toddlers crawl in their playpen. Fruean says the newborn’s mother was one of the girls who had danced for us.

We tip-toe out of the House of Blessings, trying to reconcile the happiness on display earlier with the reality that one of those “happy” girls is far too young to have been made a mother. We pile back into our van and leave this place of hope. The driver waves his arm out the window again.

Guests are coming

Further west, some 25 minutes later, a single dirt road separates pasture. Undulating, rocky, and filled with pot-holes, the road has forced the drivers to take their time for fear of damaging the undersides of their work vehicles. Cattle graze and trees are scattered, but the land is so exposed that prisoners would be hard-pressed to avoid detection if they tried escaping during the day from nearby Tanumalala prison.

As we near the end of the road, a watch tower punctuates the sky. Barbed wire top grey bricked- walls. The main prison gate is shut, guarded by two men wearing green polo shirts, navy blue fatigue pants, and ID lanyards. A more official-looking man then greets us: Police Deputy Commissioner of Corrections, Leiataua Samuelu Afamasaga. We’re handed pamphlets headed “New Zealand District Court Judicial Official Visit”. They’re something he’s proud of. “We wanted to create these because we knew we had guests coming,” he says, glossing over section seven of the pamphlet: “Challenges”. Among them, “access road” and staff turnover.

According to the pamphlet, on the day we visit 411 prisoners are incarcerated or held in custody across Samoa’s three prisons. Men comprise 87% of Samoa’s prison population, most of whom are held at Tanumalala, a site made up of the prison complex and more than 240 hectares of surrounding land. More than three-quarters of the country’s Corrections personnel work at Tanumalala. One in five Samoans is behind bars.

Costing tens of millions of dollars to build, Tanumalala was completed in June 2019. The following March, as the rest of the country was under a covid-19 state of emergency, nearly 40 prisoners escaped the high-security prison. Back then, Tanumalala was separate from the Samoa Prisons and Correction Services. That changed as a result of the outbreak – Corrections was merged with the Ministry of Police to ensure sufficient manpower and security.

We pass through the gate, a lush garden sitting at the foot of what our maps indicate are the medical quarters, watch house, and records office. Instead, we veer toward a collection of buildings on the left. Four women are sitting outside their sleeping quarters. They smile back, their fingers dancing in and around leaves – tightening, folding, and weaving.

Buildings nine, 10 and 16 are reserved for all 11 of Samoa’s female inmates. As the pamphlet outlines, male prisoners attempted to break into the women’s section during the March 2020 mass outbreak. “It was a risk situation and not safe for women to be in close proximity with the men’s prison,” the pamphlet reads. Afamasaga adds that management is working up a proposal for the Samoan government to relocate the women’s facilities away from the main prison site. Funding is an issue though. He doesn’t elaborate further.

What’s the time, Mr Wolf?

Shadowed by an entourage of prison officers, we walk up to the base of the watch house. Blasting out of speakers is the 1994 hit song What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?, sung by New Zealand’s Southside of Bombay and immortalised in Once Were Warriors.

We struggle to hear anything that Afamasaga is saying as we walk through the records office, where prisoners are first received and processed; the song’s volume intensifies the closer we get to the courtyard. “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock” the lyrics go; music is used to help rehabilitate prisoners, the deputy commissioner says. Prisoners are entitled to one phone call a month and one visit each week, typically on Saturdays. Doctors visit every Tuesday, but for the rest of the week prisoners are transported to the hospital.

Another consequence of the 2020 mass outbreak was the installation of 24/7 CCTV around Tanumalala. Inside a monitoring room, an officer drags her computer mouse in a square across a live video stream. The image immediately zooms in. Afamasaga says the footage is often used as evidence against infringing prisoners. In a wing opposite the records office, prisoners are weaving leaves into Samoan fans and stencilling on top of fabric while a band plays live. The electric guitarist, convicted of sexual violence, leads the song well. The deputy commissioner gives them all a thumbs up after they finish.

At the end of the complex, past another wing housing low-risk prisoners, metal screeches on metal. Construction workers put down their tools as we walk through their work to the men’s kitchen. Afamasaga explains the prison hasn’t had to buy bread for the past two years because prisoners have been making it fresh from a bakery newly built onsite. A supply of beef from the cattle we saw will last 10 years; they’re killed for their meat rather than milked.

Inside the administration building, sunsets, flowers, and people’s faces are on display. As we sip freshly opened coconuts, a woman explains the artwork comes from a “second chance” exhibition, which raised NZ$6,000 to keep the art rehab program going. A portrait catches my eye. Painted in pinks, reds, and purples is Samoa Prime Minister Afioga Fiame Naomi Mataʻafa. Much like the people she serves – those working in the headquarters we met earlier in the day, those looking after neglected and abused children, and those women sitting outside weaving – the prime minister returns strangers’ smiles.

Reweti Kohere travelled to Samoa courtesy of ADLS

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