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Raffique Shah


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Prisoners of Birth 2

By Raffique Shah
December 1, 2013

In the wake of the gruesome discovery of six-year-old Keyana Cumberbatch's decomposing corpse last week, there are deafening cries for swift justice for the beast who murdered the child.

One can understand why the average citizen would be outraged over this crime, and similar savagery against other children, older people and women.

As a society besieged by criminals, we have become inured to gangland killings and the regular murders-fare. But the human compassion in our hearts triggers outrage when the victims are innocent, harmless or defenceless human beings as categorised above.

It might shock readers to learn that beasts who commit such crimes are ostracised even in prison. Often, the authorities have to isolate them from the general prison population for their own safety. It is not uncommon for some officers to conveniently arrive late to rescue them from mauling administered by other prisoners who, while they too are criminals, they are not without compassion.

In other words, there are criminals and there are animals, there are prisoners and there are beasts in human form. Indeed, there is actually a code of conduct of sorts in most prisons. Which is why, I argue, we cannot deem all prisoners beasts, hence deserving of the primitive conditions that exist in the nation's jails. Ninety-nine per cent of the persons behind bars are prisoners of birth, meaning mostly young Afro and Indo-Trinidadians who are from the underclass, whose families are too poor to afford bail for those on remand, or good attorneys.

I am not suggesting that most of them are innocents who were railroaded into prison by an iniquitous justice system. Far from it, most may be guilty, some of heinous crimes. Mostly, though, these young men are dropouts from a flawed education system and products of environments that literally breed criminals.

Only a small percentage of youths from such communities, usually those who enjoy good parental guidance or who are fortunate to find mentors in their schools or on sports fields, escape the cycle of poverty, crime and prison-destiny of the damned.

In contrast, there are others, admittedly not large numbers, from different class backgrounds who commit dastardly crimes but escape justice. Brad Boyce comes to mind-he was not singular, only the one easily remembered. If or when they are imprisoned, they are accommodated in the infirmary or special cells. Most times, the favoured few may be arrested and charged, but their matters mysteriously disappear from the justice system.

Then there are large numbers of "never-arrested" crooks, criminals, really, who commit crimes every day of their lives, but who are never brought to justice. They are out front calling for harsher treatment for criminals. I refer to the "good citizens" who dodge tax, siphon VAT payments, deal in drugs in a big way, launder money, steal from the public purse, bribe their way into multi-million-dollar contracts.... Need I go on? I think not.

These people are bandits who do not need guns to rob their fellow citizens. Their weapons are their wiles, cloaks of societal decency, contacts, office, influence and absence of conscience. In so many ways, they are more dangerous to society than documented criminals. We cannot even name and shame this lot-they have no shame.

So, we need to peer into the nation's prisons as human beings, and see behind those walls, except for a minority of men without souls who cannot be salvaged, human beings who have strayed from the straight and narrow, or worse, who might simply be prisoners of birth.

To condemn these men to the purgatory that is our prisons system is to make our lives hell. I know of what I write because I have seen it, lived it. Harmless men, men who make minor mistakes in life, sent to prison where harsh conditions and exposure to hardened criminals see them "graduate" to lives of crime. Our prisons manufacture criminals.

We cannot hope to arrest this humongous problem by tinkering with it. We must break down the walls of Jericho, dismantle the dungeons of a distant past if we are to have any hope of instituting modern restorative justice.

Let me explain: how do you retrofit prisons cells of 18th Century vintage, nine-by-twelve caves that have no plumbing or possibilities to accommodate modern features? Impossible!

Building a new remand facility is a start. But that will take no less than five years to complete. In the interim, what can be done? Many persons, including the current Chief Justice, have hinted at solutions. But nobody in authority has the guts to act decisively.

An early option is to clear the prisons of all prisoners (remand and convicted) who are behind bars for trivial offences-minor narcotics, petty thefts, debt, loitering or cussing the Prime Minister! That would almost halve the prison population and ease the tension.

Attack the criminal justice system with similar determination: clear the deck of all trivial matters and move speedily to resolve the others. There is so much more that can be done, but I am a prisoner of space! Ah gone. (PT I)

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