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Raffique Shah


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Singing at one's own wake

July 03, 2005
By Raffique Shah

OVER the past few weeks I have noticed an increase in the number of persons who openly voice their opinions against capital punishment. Oh, many more are calling for blood, for hangings to be resumed, and even suggesting that those of us who want to "save the necks of murderers", including attorneys in the matter, to allow the beasts into our homes, to open our doors to them. They do not understand that civilised persons who are against capital punishment are not supportive of murder or murderers, just as we hold strong positions against rape, robberies, kidnappings, and yes, littering, flouting traffic regulations, evading taxes and cheating on VAT payments. These are all crimes, albeit of a different nature. Like all right thinking persons, we are alarmed by the crime wave that has struck us, tsunami-like, and from which we seem incapable of extricating ourselves.

In fact, I should add that in a country where politicians, and in instances, even some policemen, consort with criminals, citizens have every right to be angry and frightened. I have repeatedly written about this phenomenon which is not unique to this country. And I have repeatedly questioned why politicians feel it necessary to have "badjohns" at and on their sides. I see it in the case of the PNM, just as it was under the UNC (several criminals ran for local elections on that party's slates). I am heartened, though, by the few good men (and women) in government who are dead-set against such liaisons, who absolutely refuse to even allow them an audience. There is hope yet that outside of the current political milieu we may have the makings of a new political culture. That, if ever it materialises, could deliver us from the evils we have endured for far too long.

But I have strayed from what I promised readers last week .a peep into the prison, more so Death Row and the gallows. During the final few months the "rebel soldiers" were held in jail, those who were not convicted spent time in what is called "South Prison", which, until late 1971, was used as the Womens' Prison. It is situated below one section of Death Row which includes the "gallows". I cannot claim to have been in or on Death Row, but living where we did, and from our interaction with convicted killers, orderlies who serve there ("trusted" prisoners) as well as prisons officers.

The "gallows" is a simple structure in which the prisoner to be executed, having had the noose strung around his neck, a hood placed on his head, is made to stand on a "trap door". This is a bi-fold metal "door" that opens when the executioner pulls a lever. The condemned prisoner's body then drops into a void where he is supposed to die within seconds as his vertebrae snap. The body is left hanging for close to 45 minutes after which it is taken down, placed on a slab at another end of the prison, where an autopsy is performed to show he died by hanging (and not strangulation, for example).

Believe it or not, that's the easiest part of executions. Except for a handful of psychopaths, even hardened killers go to the gallows without resistance, since in most instances they will have made peace with their Lord. While we lived in the shadows of the gallows, we had the experience of talking with a few killers who were due to be executed within hours. On execution days the authorities would let all prisoners out of their cells to do their ablutions and eat something before 6 a.m. While we were in the yard one such morning, a prisoner I knew (having met him in jail), recognised my voice as we talked in the yard. "Shah!" he shouted. He repeated the call and I finally responded. What could I say to a man who was due to be hanged in a few hours? After repeated calls, I answered: "Yes, Dog!" "Well, ah goin' to meet The Maker, boy." Slience. All I could think of saying was: "Go brave, brother." "I am," he responded. "I have made peace with the Lord."

Even before such bizarre circumstances, the inhumanity of hanging someone, matters not how inhumane he might have been to his victim, the prelude is even worse. It's the only time a man gets to sing at his own wake! The death warrant is read to him on a Thursday afternoon, and he would be hanged the following Tuesday. At times, the first we would know about an impending execution was when we heard Death Row prisoners singing hymns lustily above us. Often we, and other prisoners, would join them. Because there is a nexus between the person's weight and the height from which he must be "dropped", he is weighed every day.