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Raffique Shah


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Prisoners of Birth

By Raffique Shah
November 24, 2013

Avid readers of fiction, more so Jeffrey Archer fans, will immediately note that I stole this headline from one of the writer's successful novels, A Prisoner of Birth. I did this deliberately, for several reasons.

For the uninitiated, Lord Archer is a Conservative peer whose best-selling novels have topped 150 million copies. He also served a four-year jail sentence for perjury, so he knows about prisons and imprisonment inside out, in a manner of speaking. In fact, he spent some of his jail time in the high-security Belmarsh Prison located in London.

Jail hardly interrupted his writing career, although it brought his political ambitions to a screeching halt. Upon being released, he wrote three "prison diaries" (that I have not read) and Prisoner of Birth. The book I reference here is a contemporary version of one of the great adventure stories of all time, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.

I am not about to delve into the substance of either of these novels, except to briefly mention their themes, since they are relevant to the subject matter of my column today—prison and prison conditions.

The lead characters in both books are young men or ordinary means, one a mechanic, the other a sailor, who end up in prison "framed" by crooks of high standing in society. Their suffering behind bars (a dungeon, in the case of Dumas' Edmond Dantès), their quest for knowledge whilst confined, their ingenious escapes and ultimately, their pursuit of revenge against those who had wronged them, make for compelling reading.

Dumas' imagination, which might have tapped into actual occurrences during a savage period in France's history, the mid-19th Century (think Napoleon), gave the world a story of high adventure, of the underdog suffering untold hardships, then exacting sweet revenge.

But I digress. I am intrigued by yet another political intervention, the umpteenth in the past 30 years, that purports to deal with problems that plague our prisons system. As someone who, like Archer, knows the prisons inside out, having spent 27 months behind bars 40-odd years ago, I am amused by the utterances and responses of those who merely glimpse into that netherworld and make pronouncements.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent many years in the Soviet Gulag courtesy Josef Stalin, said that one could only truly understand prison having spent considerable time in jail. I can attest to that.

I am not suggesting that Prof Ramesh Deosaran and his colleagues on the committee appointed by the Prime Minister to make recommendations on reforming our prisons spend time in the stink. But a night in the "bull pen" won't hurt—right fellas?

After a whirlwind visit to the newest facility, the Maximum Security Prison, and the adjacent Golden Grove Prison, Deosaran is reported to have said that "the most shocking thing he saw during his tour of two jails yesterday was the look of hopelessness in the eyes of innocent men".

The hopelessness I understand: jail is hell where, like Dante's Inferno, they should inscribe over the entrance, "Abandon hope, Ye who enter here."

But innocent? Come again, Doc. Oh, I know that many innocent men have been imprisoned here in Trinidad, as has happened (and happens) elsewhere in the world. Indeed, innocent men and women have been jailed or put to death throughout history.

From personal experience, I can say that almost 90 per cent of prisoners proclaim their innocence. When you really get to know them, or when their trials are held and you hear the evidence, you learn otherwise. Innocent-looking men can, and do, commit the most heinous crimes.

So Dr Deo should disabuse his mind of innocence, or, for that matter, guilt. He and his colleagues should focus on coming up with solutions to overcrowding, to the stinking conditions that prisoners and prisons officers have been condemned to endure over the past 100 years—and that's no exaggeration.

The Port of Spain Prison, once known as the Royal Gaol, is the oldest prison in the country. Its dungeon-type cells have no ablution facilities. They were designed to hold one prisoner each, so he (or she) could cope with doing his numbers in a "pozy" and sleeping on a lone bunk. When you shove three prisoners into a cell (the norm since the 1970s), or up to nine (as happens now), you have a torture chamber in which no one can sit comfortably, far less sleep or defecate.

I have seen what I write about here. I did not experience Carrera or Golden Grove personally, but once you are within the system, you learn about the conditions as if you were there. So I know that in addition to overcrowding and bullying and rape (yes, rape!), Carrera has additional problems such as an unreliable supply of potable water, frequent isolation from the mainland, and worse.

Now, given the crime wave the country has endured over the past 20 years, law-abiding citizens might justifiably ask, well, what's all the fuss about? If criminals behave like animals, then they should to be treated like animals. ( To be continued.)

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