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Prisons—disaster waiting for bloodshed

Sunday, July 19, 2015
Helen Drayton

Our prisons are national disasters waiting for a bloody tragedy. The health and lives of prisons officers and inmates are at risk. At a time when officers are protesting against threats to their health and safety, the Government announces plans for a floating museum above the jail called the “Spirit of Port-of-Spain.” It would house paintings, music, and the Tan Tan and Saga Boy crowd. Oh Gawd! Yuh get the irony. How about depicting slop pails and the glory brought to the country by the People’s Partnership (PP) Government. Enough said.

Backtrack to 2010 and the PP’s promises on human security. “We will rethink the prison system, reorganise the justice system and make interventions of a proactive and preventative nature.”

On November 18, 2013, the Government mandated a committee headed by Prof Ramesh Deosaran to investigate and make recommendations to resolve prisons officers and inmates’ complaints and address remand yard overcrowding, including the justice system as it relates to pending matters. The mandate included developing strategies for the security of prisons officers, improving the physical and physiological environment, and reducing the risk of confrontational approaches between inmates and prison officers.

What motivated the establishment of the committee was the killing of a prisons officer near his home in Malabar and the wounding of another, sparking outrage from officers over unsafe conditions. Their protests resulted in a work-to-rule. Back then, the Prison Officers Association Second Division told the public, “Prison officers have bled enough for this country as daily we protect the interest of the public.” 

Its general secretary Gordon Gerard said: “The prisons administration, our ministry, our ministers, the Prime Minister have failed and they continue to fail prison officers because today we have to see a very hard-working, conscientious officer lying dead in a drain with multiple gunshot wounds. I lay this and the other murders at their feet.” Prior to that killing, assassins had gunned down 12 prison officers over a five-year period.

In last week’s press conference by the association, it said it lodged a complaint with the Industrial Court against the State for allegedly contravening the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). It acknowledged the inherent dangers in the lawful execution of prison officers’ duties, but the conditions of work at the Remand Prison have created dangers and health threats beyond the norm. They alleged the State has neglected to carry out mandatory annual health and safety assessments. They said there was no emergency plans for controlling or responding to an outbreak of fire, to deal with an outbreak of riots, and for the evacuation of inmates.

Overcrowding remains a shameful situation with up to nine inmates in a cell. Inadequate ventilation, no toilets, poor lighting and sweltering heat compound the problem. Prison officers and the Remand Prison inmates frequently contracted “diseases like tuberculosis and scabies. In February 2013, over 70 per cent of 300 randomly selected inmates tested positive for tuberculosis.”

The Deosaran Report confirmed much of what the prison officers said and it stated that the "unsanitary, congested physical conditions and the psychological trauma that goes with these conditions are far below what a Remand Centre status deserves. The Remand Centre persons are not convicted prisoners and do not know when their trials will take place. The committee found it shocking to have witnessed thirteen homeless persons in a cell with no beds. Reportedly, three were mentally ill. The “dismal conditions…create a climate of injustice and potential threats to safety.” The situation at the Remand Yard, Golden Grove and other prisons “is very volatile and if not treated with urgency, the consequences could be disastrous for the country, the government, prison officers and prisoners.”

The committee advised the Government as a matter of urgency to build a new remand facility and get accommodation that is not overcrowded and unsanitary nor cause injury to the inmates.

It is useful to quote the Judiciary. “We have, in the past, drawn to the attention of both the Executive and the general public, the fact that the Judiciary is only one component of the Criminal Justice system and the matter of delay is a multi-faceted issue involving circumstances, agencies and resources outside of its control.” The Judiciary’s release mentioned the lack of resource capacity in the Police Service and the Office of the DPP. The shortage of defence attorneys, the inability of the Legal Aid and Advisory Service to ensure representation for qualifying accused persons, Forensic Science Centre challenges and inability to quickly provide needed reports. It mentioned outdated legislative systems.

Imagine, so many urgent needs in the wake of economic threats, yet the Government has time and money for a floating museum above the prison. What happened to the promises of fairness and justice? What happened to the Deosaran Report?

Prison conditions, which tantamount to torture in a stinking cesspit, do not deter criminals or reduce recidivism. There is wilful neglect of prison employees. A bloody tragedy is waiting to happen.


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