DRUGS and violence continue to be a ãmajor problemä in the islandâs prisons, according to the new chairman of the Treatment of Offenders Board.

Austin Thomas, who served as chairman for most of the 1990s, is back in the hot seat after PLP MP Neleetha Butterfield, who was appointed chairman last year, quit late September.

Prisoners on work release are the main problem, Mr. Thomas said. ãThese are the ones who have been given the opportunity to get back into the scheme of things in terms of employment but, when they come back in, they are randomly tested and it turns out they are doing drugs,ä he said. ãSometimes we have found drugs on them.ä

In these cases all the Treatment of Offenders Board can do is take away a prisonerâs remission and privileges, such as outside exercise and access to the canteen.

One solution is ãdrug sniffing dogsä. Mr. Thomas has been asking for them for the past five years. Next year it looks like he will finally get his wish.

Acting Prisons Commissioner Edwin Wilson told us on Monday: ãWe have it budgeted for the next Budget in April. It has been approved through the Board of Inquiry [conducted earlier this year].ä

But with government tightening its belt after the September 11 attacks, it remains to be seen whether it considers the dogs a necessity or a luxury. Both Mr. Thomas and Mr. Wilson made references to costs, although Mr. Wilson pointed out the service does utilize the police K9 unit.

Meanwhile the problem continues. ãAt our last meeting four people were brought before us ÷ all internal problems involving drugs. Itâs quite a concern for us,ä Mr. Thomas said.

Violence, too, shows no signs of abating, something which Mr. Thomas regards as a ãreflection of whatâs going on in this countryä.

ãItâs getting to be really quite horrendous. Itâs very disturbing,ä he said.

Asked to verify Mr. Thomasâ comments, Mr. Wilson said: ãI will have to yield to him until I have statistics that say otherwise.ä

Mr. Thomas said the way things stand, the prison authorities have limited powers of redress. ãThe Commissioner of Prisons is limited as to what he can bring down as penalties. The laws and regulations of prisons need to be updated. The authorities have to bring these matters to the Treatment of Offenders Board, but then we are also limited. If we feel as though we cannot deal with the problem, it is taken to the courts.ä

Prisoners know this, too. Referring to the recidivism rate, which usually hovers around 80 per cent, Mr. Thomas said: ãThey are so informed and so up to date in their understanding of the running of the prison and they take full advantage of it. They work the system. They are masters of it.ä

The demanding situation is also having a negative effect on board members. There are 18 in all, but Mr. Thomas told us he has difficulty getting people together in sufficient numbers to form a quorum.

Members who thought they would be giving three hours of their time, routinely end up giving closer to five hours. ãThis is causing problems for those members of the board whose employers give them time off for community service.

ãIn the last meeting I had to plead with members to assist us making our quorum.ä Things might improve, continued Mr. Thomas, if members were ãremunerated appropriatelyä.

ãWhen you consider the people who are asked to serve ÷ these are people whose time and energy deserve far more in terms of remuneration,ä he said.