November 18, 2001
By Raffique Shah
DURING my 27-month stint as a prisoner of the State, there was a universal saying among "guests" at Her Majesty's Prison (as the institution was then known): "If you must make ah jail, do it while you are young!" Of course, other hardened criminals or stupid persons who had never been inside a cell, would, in moments they would live to regret, scream, "Jail 'ent make to ripe fig, you know!" The consensus, though, was that prison was no place for decent citizens, and certainly not for older people. The conditions are so brutal, even the young and strong have to steel themselves to survive. And for the old, the haven of the infirmary does not insulate them from the hellhole that is jail.
I got around to thinking about my one-time "home" following the recent arrests of several high-flyers in society, and in particular former senior managers at the NWRHA. I knew that even though they had only been arrested and charged, and guilt or innocence is yet to be determined, nothing in their lives would have prepared them for what they will have experienced over the past days. For starters, the simple process of being fingerprinted and charged is humiliating. I can only imagine Dr Tim Gopeesingh, Dr Ranjit Sookdar and Reynold Makhan having their hands in the firm grip of officers who would rub their fingers on an ink pad, then transfer the prints onto their files. Mug shots will have been taken, then the charges formally laid against them.
In Sookdar's case, the good doctor failed to meet his bail requirements and was forced to spend almost six days in the slammer. That must have been a frightening experience for someone who, prior to getting into this mess, lived the good life and rubbed shoulders with the wealthy and powerful. His sudden removal-by-force from exclusive watering holes to a stinking cell in the Port of Spain Prison will have been a sobering experience, to put it mildly. Attorney Jagdeo Singh, who is currently facing trial by jury, was also subjected to imprisonment without bail until a judge finally relented.
With the Fraud Squad having in its possession a mass of documents that reportedly implicate some very senior officials, among them ex-ministers, in acts of fraud and other forms of impropriety, many among the high and mighty must be experiencing sleepless nights. And with good reason, too. Because having seen their colleagues, some of whom were "untouchables" up to yesterday, fall from grace so rapidly, they must be pondering their own fates. Their worst nightmares, of course, will be losing power on December 10, and having to deal with a new government that will be under intense public pressure to lock up those who plundered the Treasury over the past six years. It's not a propitious time for those who believed that the good times would roll on forever.
It is, however, reassuring to the public that there is still some measure of justice in the country, and that we have a fearless DPP in Mark Mohammed. Without pronouncing on the guilt or otherwise of the arrested men, there was always a perception that the elite in society, especially politicians in power and their cronies, could get away with murder. Ordinary people, though, faced the full force of the law, however minor their misdemeanours. Seeing Dr Gopeesingh in handcuffs will have restored people's faith in the system, even if the doctor's "hands are clean", as he stated, and his "bracelets" were part of a bizarre public relations campaign (as some skeptics insisted).
I started off this column suggesting that if one must "make ah jail", one is advised to so do when you are young and able to withstand the rigours of confinement and brutal conditions in jail. Ask Trevor "Burnt Boots" Smith. Crime, though, has no age limits applied to it, nor is education or one's standing in the society a "crime guide". White-collar criminals, more so than regular bandits, vagabonds or drug dealers, tend to disregard the age factor. Indeed, in their mostly sanitised world, age brings not only experience, but the authority to tamper with funds that younger people in their organisations will hardly have access to. And when those so inclined feel they have the backing of their bosses, whether the latter are corporate or political, the would-be thieves feel emboldened.
There was a time when corruption by public officers was not taken seriously, partly because the evidence was hard to come by, and partly because the public and the media weren't as vigilant. Today, even as those who commit such heinous crimes (stealing from the public purse is little different to dealing in cocaine!) bury their heads in the sand of yesteryear, the police and the people are closing in on them. I shan't be surprised if, before December 10, many older politicians-and a few younger ones-find themselves facing police cells, the courts, and jail.
I don't know what advice Prime Minister Basdeo Panday will give to his loyal servants who, in the autumn of their years, are accused of tampering with the "royal jewels". He cannot advise them on jail, since he himself spent only a weekend in relative comfort (I was there to guide him).. I, too, can't advise these older men who are suffering with multiple health problems, and who lived their lives sheltered behind sandbags of money, about coping with life behind bars. I'm long off, if you get my drift. So, poor sods, they will have to face the music when the long arm of the law catches up with them.
It must be a source of concern to Panday that many of his once-merry men are being picked up by the police so frequently, especially on the eve of an election. If the "arrest count" continues to climb, especially before December 10, then the PM may well find himself forfeiting some seats to the PNM even before a vote is cast. And when someone as senior as Dr Gopeesingh, a UNC senator and executive member, is handcuffed and charged on several counts of misconduct in public office, that must hurt the party's campaign platform.
Look, it pains me to see older people having to go through the trauma of being arrested and thrown into jail, only because I know what jail is. But if greedy old men (and women) are bent on stealing public funds, then they must be made to pay for their crimes. Justice must prevail even if some cell block in prison starts to look like the Parliament chamber, potty et al.
Copyright © Raffique Shah