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Of men and mice

Friday, April 21 2017

IMAGINE THEM. On desks, on chairs, on your bunk beds. We would not tolerate rats and their droppings in such proliferation in our homes. Yet prisoners and prison officers alike have to deal with these most unwelcomed of pests on a daily basis. In prison cells and in dormitories – the rats don’t care about the nature of the space they occupy .

Wednesday’s Newsday report on the situation at the Port-of- Spain Prison and at Golden Grove in Arouca is likely just the tip of the iceberg. With an aging criminal justice infrastructure (some of which dates back to colonial time), it is little surprise that the State has had to tender over time for special measures to deal with these unwelcomed guests. But in recent times, it seems, the situation has become more fraught .

Truly surreal scenes were described in Wednesday’s report .

People contacted Newsday, from behind bars, to complain that rats are everywhere including in eating areas, in cells, in bathrooms, in kitchens, in prison officers’ quarters .

Videos showed rodents going about their business, oblivious to the attention they were attracting .

Is there any more striking symbol of how poor prison conditions are? Earlier this month came reports of a water shortage at the Carrera Island prison. The situation was so bad the prison authorities had to allow prisoners to bathe in the sea under their supervision .

Newsday understands that years ago, a contract was given to a local pest eradication company to exterminate the rodents and that company undertook a major fumigation of prisons. However, the contract has since expired and with the latest rat infestation, executives of the prison authorities sent tenders for companies to bid for a new contract .

While that process is underway, the rats are multiplying at a rapid rate, putting both prisoners and prison officers at risk .

This raises a number of questions .

What is the reason for the sudden upsurge of this hazard and could it have been foreseen? Why has retendering for what should be a rudimentary maintenance issue taken so long? Is the situation affected by the physical conditions? Is there some vulnerability in prison design that has allowed rats to proliferate? If large rats are sneaking in and out, what is sneaking in and out with them? This is not only a matter that should be brought to the attention of the Ministry of National Security .

It potentially involves local government and the Ministry of Health .

The later, in particular, has an interest in ensuring all public health concerns are contained. And make no mistake. While seemingly limited to behind prison bars, this is a matter that has the potential to affect well beyond .

There is a fear that both prisoners and prison officers could fall ill from rat-borne diseases including leptospirosis, and rat-bite fever. There is also the risk that people coming into the prisons, such as visiting family members, could suffer as well .

President of the Prison Officers Association, Ceron Richards, has accused the Government of placing the issue on the back burner .

“Calls for help on this issue, just like our pleas for stab-proof vests and CCTV cameras to be installed, are being ignored and in some cases bogged down by bureaucracy,” claimed Richards. “The Government knows they are dealing with prisoners who cannot leave the prisons and prison officers who are too devoted to walk off the job. So we have to take what we get. The only thing consistent with the State is their excuses and the fact that they are not dealing with this and other problems.” It is easy to castigate “the Government” at large when administrative officials fail in their jobs. Missing from Richards’ account is an indication of when and to whom complaints have been addressed .

However, it is clear enough in our view that more needs to be done by the State to modernise and sanitise the penal system. The system should be about rehabilitation, not a case of men and mice .



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