Raffique Shah


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Flush out the jails

November 03, 2002
By Raffique Shah

SENATOR Dana Seetahal must have alarmed many people in the society when, during the Budget debate last week, she called on government to release from prison all convicted murderers who had served more than 16 years in jail, and who are deemed to have been rehabilitated. I want to ruffle many more feathers by calling on the government to free from jail all prisoners who have been incarcerated for relatively minor offences and who are more dangerous to society having been imprisoned than if their misdemeanours had been dealt with otherwise. That, I would hazard a guess, is around one-half the prison population.

A bitter mouthful there for those who have been personally touched by the crime wave that has become a permanent feature in our country for... well, ages. Others, faced with the murder-a-day syndrome that we have grown to accept as normal, not to add the seemingly overpowering stench of other serious crimes, believe the solution to runaway crime lies in building more jails and larger cemeteries. "Oh, for the good old days of Randy Burroughs!" many old-timers sigh, harking back to the era of one of the country's "ace" crime fighters whose anti-crime creed was a cross between shoot-first-and-ask-questions-afterwards, and the "Western" adage, "dead men tell no tales".

Point is we have had many Burroughs in the Police Service—meaning a long line of no-nonsense cops who have used every possible method, some of them legal, others extra-legal, to rid the country of criminals. And every government that has been in power since independence has promised to "deal with crime". In fact, the UNC rode to power in 1995 on an anti-crime platform: after six years in office, its biggest boast was to have hanged the Dole Chadee gang and jailed a few more drug dealers. But by the time they were ready to return to opposition, the Minister of National Security, Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, had expressed his frustration at being unable to stem the tide of crime.

And so it will continue to be until such time as we start attacking crime from every possible flank—starting with poverty (which really is no excuse for crime) and the adverse social effects that flow therefrom. The rekindling of a community spirit in which we all become our neighbours' keepers is another essential element. Educating parents and children in rebuilding family life is yet another imperative if we are to save the society from decay. And government's addressing the many other social ills that bedevil the society is all-important if we are to achieve the goal of a country with minimal crime.

But back to prison, which is where, like Senator Seetahal, I would start the process.

Only those who have been inside the walls of prison, and that for a relatively long time, can tell you about jail. For many years now our prisons have been extremely overcrowded. Among the unfortunate sods who are trapped behind those walls and who ought never to be there are prisoners on remand, meaning they have not been convicted on any crime—merely charged. Many of these are petty offenders, but because of poverty, such pitiful souls cannot even raise bail money. So the Remand Yard can be virtually emptied—except for the handful of deviants or psychopaths who are charged with serious or abominable crimes.

Then among the thousands who have been convicted, more than 75 per cent are there for petty crimes that hardly warrant more than being sentenced to community labour or fined. Let me explain. There are hundreds of cocaine addicts who are in prison, having been arrested with "ah few rocks". These addicts, while they pose a minor menace to law-abiding citizens (you have to hide from your garden hose to your potted plants!), ought never to be in prison. They will go there as addicts (and at least get something to eat) and will come back out as addicts. It's a kind of perpetual cycle, at least until they die.

Why the hell are magistrates and judges clogging up the already overcrowded jails with these hopeless souls? If anything, the government should look at the prospect of converting Carrera island prison into a cocaine rehabilitation centre. That would be a more positive approach to this nagging problem since we may even save a handful of them. The others will simply die. The same holds true for marijuana smokers (as distinct from growers or pushers), who are in the main less harmful to society than drunkards.

Yet, many young men stew in jail for smoking a "joint". Again, I ask, what is achieved by jailing such people? And then there are thousands more who have been sent to the "slammer" for minor injuries inflicted during fights or brawls, others serving time for reacting badly to some domestic problems, and so on.

In the meantime, as the police and the magistracy/judiciary combine efforts to further aggravate the overcrowding problem, the ones who are made to feel the heat are our prison officers and, of course, prisoners. Conditions become inhumane. Up to 15 people in a cell designed for one. Men "sleeping" while standing up. Psychotic murderers are placed in the same cells as teenage misfits who stole soft drinks from parlours. In other words, what I'm describing is a horror story beyond belief—except for those who have experienced it. And worst of all, the system does not solve our crime problem. If anything, it worsens it.

So I shall not only make an appeal for "reformed" murderers and other prisoners who have "done their time". My focus is on those who we can yet save from leading criminal lives. Early on during the 27 months I spent in jail, a prison officer asked me to figure out how two men, one from Cedros, the other from Toco, could be caught committing the same crime. I couldn't. Simple, he said. They both met in jail, and more than likely the more seasoned criminal influenced the other. That's how they became a team.

And that's the vicious cycle of crime we unwittingly create through our collective stupidity, our quest for vengeance. If the government were to empty the jails of all petty criminals and prisoners-on-remand for minor offences, it would be a relief for prison officers and better allow them to deal with seasoned or psychotic criminals who really deserve incarceration. And with proper monitoring of those released, we may well find that the answer to our crime woes lies outside the walls of prisons, not inside the University of Crime.

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