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Ombudsman called to investigate concerns following the death of a prisoner

By Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – 21 FEBRUARY 2023: The Coroner has raised major concerns on the safety and care of prisoners serving time in prison following the death of a prisoner who was serving a life sentence for murder.

On 7 February 2023, the deceased was rushed to the Leulumoega hospital on suspicion of ingestion of paraquat and was later released.

On the same day, his condition worsened and was taken to the TTM hospital where he was admitted and was declared dead the following day – 8 February 2023.

The death caused a lot of speculation and insensitive reporting by some media outlets fueled misinformation and further public confusion.

However, a letter by the Coroner, District Court Judge, Alalatoa Rosella Papalii detailed the sequence of events and the detailed police report of 9 February of the death.

From the police report, the Coroner noted safety issues of concern that needed to be addressed hence the call on the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate.

In a letter to the Police Commissioner, Commissioner of Prisons, Director General of Health and the Ombudsman, the Coroner highlighted the following concerns that must be dealt with.

  1. Failure of prison authorities to allocate someone to supervise prisoners working the field;
  2. Possible failure of prison authorities to exercise reasonable care and attention to prevent prisoners from hurting themselves or hurt by others;
  3. How the paraquat came to be available to the prisoners especially where safety should be a top priority within the facility and
  4. The propriety of issuing a permit by the Ministry of Agriculture to the three prison facilities – Tanumalala, Vaiaata and Oloamanu in light of the high risks involved to the health and safety of prisoners and ultimately their lives.

After perusing the police report, the Coroner then made several orders pertaining to the body which included a post mortem and that the deceased’s family was allowed to view the body but restricted from touching it.

The deceased’s body is under the Coroners custody and only be released after the post mortem.

She also ordered all prisons in Samoa to cease purchasing the paraquat and other poisonous chemicals for use and that all prisoners’ activities must be supervised.

“In light of the important issues outlined above, I have decided as a matter of public interest, to invoke the Coroners statutory function under Section 10(h) and Section 31(3) of the Coroners Act 2017 and hereby formally refer this case file to the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the issues identified and any other their office may deem fit to consider within its legal jurisdiction,” said Alalatoa.

The Ombudsman report is to be submitted to the Coroner to assist with preventative and educational recommendations the Coroner intends to make at the conclusion of the Inquest hearing.