A Samoan man has spent nearly five extra years in prison because neither he, nor prison authorities realised that his two sentences should have been served concurrently, not consecutively.
Sio Agafili, 45, should have been released in December 2015, but he remained in jail until a judge spotted the error when he appeared in court on another matter.
In an interview with the Samoa Observer, the father of three said he was never told the ultimate length of his prison sentence.
“No one told me when my jail term will end,” he said.
“I lost count of the days [behind bars]. I don’t remember much about when I should be out, I just know I had to serve my time.”
Agafili was originally convicted of burglary and theft in November 2008, and sentenced to seven years in prison.
In December 2008, he was convicted on unrelated counts of burglary and theft, and sentenced to five years in prison. Those sentences should have been served concurrently: the default in the Samoan criminal justice system. He was due to be released in December 2015.
The error was only noticed by supreme court justice Leiataualesa Daryl Clarke last week ahead of Agafili’s appearance over an assault allegedly committed during a mass breakout from Tanumalala prison, where he was being held.
Police conceded in court he was being detained illegally, and Agafili was released on bail, ahead of his sentencing on the assault charge. Agafili ultimately spent an additional four years and eight months in prison.
Muriel Lui, Agafili’s lawyer, told RNZ Pacific she was discussing his legal options with him, and that a claim for compensation was likely.
“His right to liberty – under article 6 of our constitution – has definitely been breached. So it’ll definitely be a claim under that.”
Lui said she was concerned other Samoan prisoners might be similarly incarcerated beyond their prison terms.
“I’m not quite sure what happened here in terms of how police entered into their system that it was cumulative instead of concurrent, but it definitely does raise questions in terms of other prisoners who are currently in there, and whether they are serving the right sentences.”
Samoa’s prison system has been consistently criticised over rights violations, corruption, and management incompetence.
In March this year, the prison service was disbanded completely, and its commissioner, Taito Edward Winterstein, stood down, after the latest in a series of breakouts, this time by 36 prisoners.
The prison system was taken over by the police ministry, with promises from the commissioner of a complete overhaul.
In a scathing report last year, Samoa’s ombudsman found staff were untrained, while prisons were overcrowded and lacked basic facilities such as running water.
It found children were detained with adults, and escapes were common.
“Despite the availability of some ... books for record keeping, there is still a major gap in that most of them are not comprehensive, records are not entered correctly and some are incomplete,” the report read.
“This is a serious concern which not only violates the rights of the prisoner but also puts the centre at risk especially when it comes to investigations.”