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Prison inmates file Covid-19 complaints with Ombudsman

Complaints linked to Covid-19 accounted for a significant portion of the Ombudsman for Bermuda’s caseload last year, according to the office’s 2020 annual report.

They ranged from emergency unemployment benefits for people put out of work to pandemic restrictions imposed at Westgate prison.

Other concerns highlighted in the 69-page report, tabled on Friday in the House of Assembly, concerned unresponsiveness on the part of public authorities, and the timely reporting of bus cancellations.

Ombudsman Victoria Pearman said the Government’s own internal complaint system was “near completion” – allowing the public “a direct method of raising concerns”.

According to the report, 192 new complaints were fielded by the office last year, with 23 “directly” related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Eight pandemic complaints related to prison inmates, including three concerning the delayed release of foreign nationals.

A further four concerned the Government’s unemployment benefits scheme, which Ms Pearman flagged up as an area of concern for problems ranging from difficulties with the benefits hotline to delays in receiving benefits.

The Ombudsman also undertook an “own motion” investigation of the Government’s reporting of bus cancellations, with conclusions to be shared with the Department of Public Transportation.

On the Covid-19 front, a family barred from visiting a dying relative in hospital because of health restriction contacted the Ombudsman, who found the family should have been admitted.

They were allowed into the hospital later that same night.

The Department of Corrections’ move to suspend prison visits for health reasons also drew complaints from inmates.

But the Ombudsman said the prison met its obligations by switching to virtual visits.

Four foreign national inmates incarcerated after their terms of imprisonment had ended made complaints last year – but the Ombudsman’s office found their deportations were unavoidably hindered by the pandemic.

Their release also involved detention orders from the Governor as well as consideration by the courts.

Ms Pearman said all were released and deported by September 24.

The Ombudsman’s office investigated mask compliance by staff at Westgate, which garnered “several” complaints last year, plus concerns over alternatives to the PCR test for the virus.

Inmates further highlighted a lack of open-air recreation time at the prison, and lockdowns that exceeded the legal maximum time.

One complaint over unemployment benefits came from a “desperate and tearful” hotel worker left jobless by shelter-in-place regulations.

Hotlines were swamped with calls and the worker’s employer failed to confirm her employment status.

The woman stated it would have revealed the employer was shirking legal requirements to pay their portions of her health insurance, social insurance benefits and employee tax.

Noting she got complaints over unfair treatment of staff, Ms Pearman said her office lacked jurisdiction.

She referred them to authorities such as the Department of Workforce Development, the Office of the Tax Commissioner or the Pension Commission.

The report further stated that “investigations have commenced” into some complaints of a failure to respond to calls or voice mail messages at public offices.

Ms Pearman added: “The Office reminds public officers that processes should be implemented to have phones answered, assurance given that their voicemail will be checked often, and any messages left will be returned”.

⋅ To see the Ombudsman’s annual report for 2020 in full, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.

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Published July 05, 2021 at 7:52 am (Updated July 05, 2021 at 7:16 am)

Prison inmates file Covid-19 complaints with Ombudsman

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