Prisoners of Birth 2

By Raffique Shah
November 30, 2013

Raffique ShahIn 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.

3 Responses to “Prisoners of Birth 2”


  • The state of our prisons is a condition. A condition where the population is housed and staffed by people of lower economic means and by extension those amongst us whose vision take them no further than their very own eyes can see. Hope is an alien name that they have no concept on how they can make any transition to prosperity. They too are victims even though our society see them only as predators of our good fortune, lifestyle and financial status. This is by no means saying that they somehow need our sympathies and caring but we need a system that weed out the good, the bad, the ugly and the condemned. The good shows promise, remorse, forgiving and vows to make up for their mistakes. It should be relatively easy to return them to society with little or no regrets. The bad – consists of people who experience a host of problems stemming from poor education to psychological and medical deficits. The effort needed is a little more complex and the provision of services such as education, medical, mental, social and development to rehabilitate them. The ugly might need the aforementioned plus discipline oriented services. With the rate and kind of birth preparations that young dis-advantaged mothers might or might prepare before giving births those coming under this category we find the recalcitrants who are the most challenging to reform. There is a high degree of illiteracy among this group but they are in dire need of reformation and the longer we leave them out the harder they become as seasoned criminals. The recidivist population is higher in this category because our society is hungry for revenge and there is little or no appetite for repeat offenders to be placed among us in society. With the influx of deportee criminals and the locally grown, the degree of crime or criminal activity will only get worse if there are no avenues left to arrest and change these behaviors. We are a judgmental society that see crime as a malady that comes exclusively from the ugly class. If we were to examine the amount of money we loose to corruption by the privilege and governing class and transfer it to reforming and eradicating street criminals then I’m sure it can make a dent on heinous crimes in our society. We also can’t reduce crime by simply locking up and jailing the ‘street criminals’. The class of criminals that this country never address or pretend doesn’t exist is white color criminals. They are not easily seen and detected because they come in the forms that society taught us that should be respected. The come in the form of religious gowns and robes, three-piece suited salesmen, insurance agents, politicians, teachers, policemen, directors of companies, directors of agencies, directors of state corporations and yes, presidents and vice-presidents of our financial institutions. They are the empowering class of criminals that are selfish in their objectives, they possess natural power by reason of their occupations, financial strengths, legislative authority and political connections. They empower the operative branches of the criminal world and therefore feel isolated from the acts of criminality. They happen to be the most dangerous because of that power that they can and usually exercise to satisfy their greed. Most will agree that Trinidad and Tobago may never convict a “Mr Big” by neglecting corruption. It should be the first in our quest for criminal reduction. Clearly, there is no one on the horizon and the political will is never there to weed out this evil that befall us.

  • “98% of people behind bars are prisoners of birth” what
    What? That is the most sorry excuse for criminality
    that I have ever heard of. Crime and criminal behavior
    is an act of a person will isn’t it? We are all blessed
    With the ability to choose. Unless Shah is a firm
    BELIEVER in determinism…

  • I read both blogs. They were enlightening. I agree with the idea that we should begin to solve the problem by clearing the prisons and justice system of these who commit minor offences. The problem is who will listen to your advice. May I suggest that you do as Verna St.Rose and make noise in Parliament or have a chat with Dr. Deosaran and his committee.

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