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Raffique Shah


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Joker wild in Cabinet

By Raffique Shah
Jan 22, 2012

Justice Minister Herbert Volney invariably comes across as a joker in the theatre of the macabre...a kind of black humour specialist.

He seems not to know whether his role is to make people laugh, cry or have a compelling urge to throttle him. He cannot decide if he is an entertainer, intimidator or Soca Monarch contender.

Recently, in announcing measures his ministry proposes to introduce to modernise the penal system, Volney managed, not for the first time, to highlight the most comical of them, conjugal rights for prisoners. Citizens responded with a mix of outrage, guffaws and incredulity.

What struck me as I listened to him speak on proposed amendments to the outdated Prison Rules was that there were several measures he advanced that are laudable and long overdue. He touted restorative over retributive justice. Given the ongoing crime epidemic, not many people would agree with such fundamental change. The public is crying out for punitive measures to be enforced, for the "return of hangings". They want blood. Volney is offering sex. Regarding executions, our laws with respect to capital punishment have not changed. Convicted murderers are condemned to die by hanging. It remains for the authorities to execute them, barring any legal hurdles. And successive governments, all of which have been pro-capital punishment, cannot claim to have had insufficient time to plug legal loopholes that see most murderers walk free or serve terms of imprisonment. The last hanging spree took place 13 years ago, in June 1999, when Dole Chadee and his gang were executed over a long weekend.

That said, restorative justice, if it is combined with appropriate social and economic interventions, could go a long way to reducing crime and the ever-expanding pool of criminals. We can successfully attack the hydra-headed crime monster by using multi-pronged methods. Many people mistakenly believe that if we shoot and kill all dangerous criminals, crime would magically disappear. Folks like these should listen to Black Stalin's refrain of yesteryear, "More come, more come".

But back to some of Volney's proposals. Already in train, I believe, is "paper committal", which is supposed to fast-track trials, hence speed up the delivery of justice. It eliminates tedious preliminary enquiries. Then there is the proposed introduction of the parole system, which would allow rehabilitated prisoners early but conditional release from prison. I have long argued for non-custodial sentencing for petty offenders. The Express editorial last Friday referred to 40 per cent of prisoners being behind bars for possession of drugs, not trafficking. Addressing this burdensome anomaly would clear much needed space at the nation's prisons and make life easier for both prisoners and prisons officers.

In other words, only those who pose a danger to society, and the evil among us who cannot be rehabilitated (I've known such men...been there, seen them), be condemned to spending a long time, maybe all of their natural lives, behind bars. Volney also addressed issues like clothing, food and sleeping accommodation meeting international standards. I have seen prisoners packed into cells like sardines, standing room only, no place to sleep, to urinate, to defecate. Such sub-human conditions only help to harden the wayward and make beasts out of deviant men and women who commit petty crime. Again, I write with authority on these facets of the penal system. So where do "conjugal rights" rights fit into the broader canvases of restorative justice and penal reform? Well, Volney seems to think that allowing selected prisoners to enjoy sex with their spouses or partners is essential to both thrusts, no pun intended. Prisons Inspector, attorney Daniel Khan, agrees with the minister. Hear Khan: "All psychologists would say that sexual intercourse is the best way to relieve stress and leaves the prisoner less frustrated and reduces violence in the prisons..."

Messrs Volney and Khan must understand that among reasons for sentencing criminals to imprisonment are putting them under stress, denying them rights and freedoms that law-abiding citizens enjoy. In other words, convicted criminals should be punished, not pampered. Denying them sex is part of the "jail package".

Besides, as Volney and Khan must know, in our prisons, prisoners have always had sex, albeit same-sex, with fellow prisoners. I know such relationships would hardly meet with the approval of most people in our homophobic society. But it's reality. It's an outlet for the "stress relief" that Inspector Khan seems to favour.

The association that represents prisons officers opposes any such initiative, with good reason. It's not a priority item. Food, accommodation, medical services, facilities for visits, options for improving prisoners' education and skills and a whole lot of other rehabilitative measures are.

As Justice Minister, especially since he had many years' experience on the bench, Volney should have already instituted provisions to expedite trials. That is another priority. Most criminal matters seem to take years, sometimes decades, before they are determined. Why do the wheels of justice turn so slowly? Surely, there must be systems that could be put in place to eliminate inordinate delays. "Paper committals" is no panacea to this seemingly intractable problem. More, much more, is required.

These are issues that Volney should address, not sex for prisoners. The minister may argue that the sex component of the proposed amendments to the Prison Rules was the most insignificant part of the package. It was he, however, who chose to highlight it. The media merely saw it as the juiciest part of the amendments, hence the attention it got. Volney must know that sex sells. The next time he chooses to make a proposal like this, he should be more circumspect in what he says.

I shan't, however, hold my breath.

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