By Raffique Shah
October 24, 2018
One newspaper report put the tally of prisons officers murdered in the past 25 years at 22. Another stated that 16 were killed in 15 years. However we look at it, one can understand the outrage of those who chose to be at the vortex of the crime whirlwind that wreaks destruction across this country at being targeted by criminals, marked for death in a manner of speaking.
Make no mistake about it: it takes a measure of courage, one might even say madness or desperation, for a young man (or woman) to voluntarily offer to serve as a custodian in what are deemed prisons in Trinidad and Tobago. While, broadly speaking, jail is jail anywhere in the world, the stench that hits you when you enter the mostly stone-age structures that pass for prisons could churn the strongest stomachs.
Except for the Maximum Security Prison at Golden Grove, the only prison to have been constructed past-colonialism, which I assume has a toilet in each cell, the dungeons in Port of Spain, on Carrera Island and the older Golden Grove facility, still use slop-pails or “pozys” (chamber pots, for Ye of civilised upbringing), have absolutely no running water, and if I believe what I hear and read, are grossly overcrowded, with prisoners sleeping on top of other prisoners, literally in many instances.
Now, I can hear the chorus from readers who believe that jails must be pens for punishment, virtual torture chambers for those who commit heinous crimes, asking: so what they want—Hilton and Hyatt-starred accommodations?
I hear you. But bear in mind that prisons officers who are assigned to work at these ancient prisons must bear the stench of a sea of unwashed prisoners, as well as their urine, excrement and other emissions for much of their eight-hour shifts. In fact, the average prisons officer is as much a prisoner as those in the cells he is guarding in that he is locked into a cell-block without keys for its gates.
More to the points I wish to make regarding the slaying of officers, every working day of their lives, they must interface or interact with criminal elements that span the spectrum of the dregs of humanity: psychopaths and homicidal gangsters, bandits and rapists, thieves and fraudsters, child molesters and worse. While it is true that a small percentage of prisoners are innocent of the crimes for which they were imprisoned, and others are there for petty offences that ought never to have landed them behind bars, it is also true that maybe 50 percent of them ought to be removed from society for the duration of their lives.
In such setting, one can understand why most officers are fearful for their lives, why it must be tough just having to report for duty. Besides the constant fear of physical violence in the jails, threats to harm them or members of their families by prisoners “calling shots” from jail-cells, threats that the criminals are capable of executing, such are the powers of the modern-day gangsters.
But all of the extremities outlined above, conditions and environments that are alien to maybe 98 percent of the population who may never even notice a prison as they walk or drive past it, do not justify the thriving trafficking of illicit items that cannot take place without the complicity of prisons officers.
We are not talking about cigarettes, which are the globally-recognised currency in prison. In today’s criminal enterprises, communications, meaning cellular phones, are worth their weight in gold. In prison, they are even more valuable: I heard one person who is familiar with the “trade” say a basic “smart-phone” can cost a prisoner $10,000, and electrically re-charging the device is a recurring fee that is substantial.
For criminals, especially gangsters who are on remand awaiting trial, these phones are an invaluable weapon through which they can order the elimination of witnesses or other obstacles to their freedom, and also conduct new business (kidnappings, robberies) to boost their “war chests” and general revenues.
In a word, for them jail means business as usual with perfect alibis. But this can happen only because there are officers who conduct or facilitate the flow of contraband tools of the trade. Such officers are conduits who knowingly aid and abet spiraling crime, including the murder of their fellow-officers.
What is worse, many of their colleagues know who the culprits are. But for reasons unknown (fear?), they are unwilling to expose them, to bring them to justice, land them behind the bars they now stand watch over.
The leaders of the Prisons Officers’ Association know the scenario I’ve painted here is true. They have admitted that there are rogue officers who must be removed from the Service. But even as they shed tears and threaten fire and brimstone when a colleague is gunned down, they fail to act against the criminals in their ranks.
Their dilemma is little different to that of the Police Service where rogues run rampant. Recently, we have seen more criminals (the term “rogue” is too tame) in police uniforms charged with serious felonies and hauled before the courts.
The prisons must likewise flush their own excrement if they want to win public support. You cannot cry unholy murder when murderers may be standing next to you.