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Sunday 20 October 2019
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A major breach

The video footage that circulated this week on social media — of prisoners fighting as other inmates recorded the incident on mobile phones — must be fully investigated by the highest levels of this country’s national security apparatus.

If verified, this footage represents a shocking breach of prison security. Coming on the heels of still unresolved questions about the deadly breakout from the Port of Spain Prison in 2015, this matter is a worrying sign that we may not have properly learned lessons from the past.

How could prisoners get their hands on mobile phones? Why were there no prison officers present to control the fighting?

Acting Commissioner of Prisons William Alexander was quick to issue tough warnings about any officers found guilty of misconduct in this incident. But Alexander must know that boasting about a policy of zero tolerance is not enough. We must have effective disciplinary procedures.

Parliament’s committees have repeatedly heard of the failure of the Public Service to resolve the question of disciplinary proceedings against people linked to the 2015 breakout. In fact, by the looks of things, the system of discipline within the Prison Service appears to have collapsed, judging from the fate of that extremely important case.

Who then will hold prison officers to account? Is a mere suspension really zero tolerance? We hope we are wrong in this and that the Public Service Commission is now able to appoint the requisite tribunals with speed in any matters referred to it.

But while Alexander is right to call down fire and brimstone against corrupt prison officers, as an officer of the law he is wrong to implicitly threaten the courts.

“We would also want to ask that the courts reduce the time for adjudicating these matters when we arrest these officers,” he said. “Sometimes it’s 10 to 12 years before these matters are dealt with. We want their matters to be expedited also so they can be dismissed from the Prison Service.”

It is true that court proceedings are too lengthy. But the causes of delay are complex. They relate to the application of the requisite laws and legal principles, the availability of legal counsel, legal challenges in the High Court, as well as the overwhelming workload the entire system finds itself handling.

As such, it is wrong to imply that it is for “the courts” to reduce the time being taken to handle cases. Judicial officers are just as constrained as anybody else in these matters. They can only work with what is given to them.

It is true that prison officers have to work in difficult conditions. Many have paid the ultimate price for their service to the nation. But the corruptibility of the Prison Service adds, potently, to the dangers of the job.

And protest action does little to help. All it does is weaken the hand of the State and empower others to take up arms. Literally, judging from history.

With the rate of repeat offending still high, it is not only mobile phones and guns passing through prison walls. Inmates go into the system, get hardened and then return to society outside spreading messages from behind bars. A dangerous trend.

If none of these matters are properly addressed, the prison system will remain a tinderbox and a threat to public safety and our national security.

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