By Raffique Shah
July 25, 2015
Last Friday’s jailbreak, in which three high-risk prisoners escaped by shooting their way out of one of the most secure prisons in the Caribbean, was historic in the sense that it was the first of its kind in the country, and maybe even in the region.
Sure, a few men have escaped before from the one-time Royal Gaol (renamed the Port of Spain Prison), mostly by scaling the very high walls that surround it. Of the dozen or so who made it through over the years, several broke their legs in the process (and were promptly recaptured).
Friday’s escape scenario, however, in which the trio sprinted to freedom with blazing guns and what appeared to be an un-primed hand grenade, was reminiscent of the Wild West in the era of wooden stockades, or the first half of the 20th century when gangs like one led by the notorious John Dillinger routinely blasted their way out of several US prisons.
The jailbreak was not unexpected, I suppose. For more than a decade we have witnessed a deterioration of our prisons system which, combined with a steep escalation in crimes in which firearms were used, was an explosion waiting to erupt.
Overcrowding, increasingly dangerous inmates, primitive facilities (not one cell has a toilet), overburdened staff, rampant trafficking and smuggling and a general breakdown in discipline in all the prisons were warning signs of what could happen, and what eventually did happen.
But even amidst the chaotic state of the system, there are some burning questions that need to be answered, firstly by the officers who were on duty when the bloody breakout took place, and maybe all officers who man the nation’s prisons.
Why were three high-risk prisoners allowed what appeared to be an unscheduled visit from friends or relatives, and why together? Given what has transpired in the prisons over the past few months, who authorised the visit? And who conducted it?
Now, I know the visiting “cage” very well. Prisoners and visitors are separated from each other by approximately two feet, each standing behind sturdy steel mesh through which one can hardly pass a toffee, far less a gun. The officer conducting the visit stands in the divide, observing and listening to both prisoners and visitors.
That there could be any opportunity to pass a weapon there is impossible-unless the officer does it.
So we can surmise that the men were armed before the visit, which brings us back to who authorised it, and why the prisoners were not frisked before they were taken from their cells.
Assuming that the men were armed beforehand, how did they get the guns and grenade, and how did they secrete the weapons in their cells?
For some years now, it has become the norm for prisoners to have in their possession cell-phones and chargers that they routinely use to make calls to associates, friends and relatives. This was always a dangerous development, and it could only happen with the complicity of officers, and a large number of them at that.
I am not suggesting that prisoners be denied communications with their families and relatives. But that should be facilitated through officially installed banks of landlines in every prison, with an allowance of maybe one call a week, under supervision.
As it stands, the prisons are a cyberjungle, with prisoners speaking freely with accomplices as they continue criminal activities from behind bars, as they give the media interviews, and in the case of the jailbreak, one escapee even posted his intent on Twitter!
Regarding trafficking in the nation’s prisons by officers and prisoners, for how long have we been hearing talk of the installation of full body-scanners and comprehensive CCTV systems to help stem the inflow of illicit items? What about the long-touted cell-phone “jammers”?
Maybe these are too costly to “waste” on the prisons, and in any event, prisoners do not vote. In the absence of doing anything about improving security, the politicians can always cry crocodile tears when police and prisons officers are killed in the line of duty: that has more vote-value.
Incidentally, where was the National Operations Centre (NOC) when all this drama took place? Why was there traffic gridlock out of the city when we were assured that the NOC had a master-plan to evacuate POS?
I am not saying that any or all of the above measures will solve the problems at the prisons or stem the tide of crime. But if implemented, they would minimise the mischief and probably prevent bloody jailbreaks.
Friday’s shocker was only a portent of things to come.