Headline — 12 April 2013 — by Adele Ramos
Ombudsman and PM asked to probe complaints against Kolbe

Ombudsman says he tasked prison CEO, Earl Jones, to do internal investigation, but Jones told us he has no such assignment!

Jones asks Courtenay and Coye LLP to sue ex-workers on allegations of defamation against Kolbe and CEO John Woods

Kolbe’s Chief Executive Officer, retired magistrate Earl Jones, has confirmed to Amandala that he has asked Courtenay Coye LLP, the firm representing the NGO which manages Belize Central Prison via contract, to file a law suit “as quickly as possible” against a group of ex-workers who produced a short documentary on Kolbe and the prison, which calls on the government to rescind the privatization effected 11 years ago, in 2002.

Kolbe contends that the video’s contents are defamatory; however, the group responsible for its production and online publication insists that it will not retract, because it can prove each of the 25 points made in the release.

They have gone further to present that documentary, along with a letter of complaint, to Ombudsman Lionel Arzu; and the group is, through the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), trying to get an audience with Prime Minister Dean Barrow, chairman of the National Security Council, as soon as possible. NTUCB president Dylan Reneau has previously told our newspaper that the effects of the prison’s privatization on the crime situation should be seriously analyzed.

Reneau confirmed to our newspaper today that they are in the process of arranging a meeting with the Prime Minister. He said that they are also trying to get labor officials to be included in that meeting.

Meanwhile, Jones has asked the attorneys representing Kolbe to file a lawsuit against Herman Blease, Sr., JP, and Abdul Nunez, alleging defamation and seeking about $75,000 in damages and costs against them, including $25,000 in attorney’s fees.

Jones denied, when we spoke with him today, that he has been asked by the Ombudsman to investigate the allegations made by the group led by Blease and Nunez.

He told us that the complaint letter which Ombudsman Arzu presented to him will, instead, form a part of the package of documents they will file with the court, to bolster their claim of defamation.

Amandala subsequently contacted the Office of the Ombudsman to clarify what request was made of Jones. Oscar Selgado, attorney in the Office of the Ombudsman, told us, after consulting with Ombudsman Arzu, who was not in office when we called, that: “We reiterate our position: [I, the attorney] and the Ombudsman met with CEO Jones between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 28, 2013, and brought up several issues. At the top of the agenda were complaints presented in the letter itemizing some 20 plus points of contention.”

He said that the Ombudsman also mentioned the allegations of human rights abuses against an inmate who was allegedly beaten up by prison wardens, as well as concerns for a terminally ill patient who wanted to go home to spend his last few days with his family, but who died over the holiday weekend before his request could be facilitated.

Jones does concede that he discussed the complaints from the ex-workers with the Ombudsman; however, he said that he did not give an undertaking that he would report back to the Ombudsman on the matter.

“The Ombudsman has never written expressing intentions to launch an investigation… I don’t have an assignment from the Ombudsman,” Jones told Amandala.

Selgado told us, though, that Arzu made the request in his presence.

“He [Jones] was to get back to the Ombudsman,” he added.

Amandala asked: What if Jones refuses?

Selgado said that the Ombudsman had previously consulted with the Ministry of National Security before deciding to take the approach of asking Jones to do the internal investigation. The attorney said that the Ombudsman does have the jurisdiction to request such an investigation, although he does not have power to directly summon Kolbe management, because they are under contract with the Ministry of National Security.

If the prison were still directly under Government’s management, he explained, the Office of the Ombudsman would be able to summon management staff and do its own investigation; however, due to the privatization to Kolbe, the manner in which the Ombudsman can intervene is limited. The Office of the Ombudsman can also seek redress in the courts in seeking to investigate and resolve the matter, the attorney said.

Meanwhile, Kolbe is proceeding with its suit. However, Nunez is still not fazed by the confirmation from Jones that Kolbe will pursue a lawsuit against him.

“We will gladly go to court. You [Kolbe] will open yourself to scrutiny. You need to prove that we are, in fact, defaming your character – open your books,” he said.

The group of ex-workers of Kolbe does not yet have legal representation.

“We are hoping someone will come up and do their civic duty and support the cause,” he said.

Nunez and Blease have also been lobbying workers to get union representation. At the time of this report, their representation by the Public Service Union has not yet been activated, according to NTUCB president Dylan Reneau.

Jones claims that the prison is sort of an essential service under Chapter 304 of the laws of Belize, so, like the police, they are allowed to form an association—not a union.

Reneau said that he does not agree with that interpretation. The Executive Committee will likely discuss the concerns raised by the ex-workers of the prison at their meeting scheduled to take place Thursday.

“It’s just playing with words,” said Nunez. “An association can be structured to do the same thing as a union. An association is just a softer way of saying a union. They know what we are doing is the right thing,” he said.

Nunez also said that prison workers need a proper system for redress, just as government workers can seek redress through the Public Service Commission.

“This thing is bigger than Kolbe, than myself and Blease. The laws were designed to take advantage of workers. There is a whole systematic problem,” he said.

He added that, “This thing is not just about us workers. Prison is a community. What is happening in the prison affects the community. Everybody has to be working in unison for the betterment of the prison.”

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