N Touch
Thursday 17 January 2019
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Rethinking the prisons system

Commissioner of Prisons Gerard Wilson promised added measures last week to stem the flow of contraband into the nation's prisons. Wilson was responding to two videos circulating on social media which showed prisoners celebrating in prison with "restricted items" and a "plant like substance." This is not the first time such a video emanated from behind the prison walls.

Successive Commissioners have been trying to keep a lid on a powder keg of problems in the local prisons, which are far from environments conducive to rehabilitation. There are stories of young men entering prison for minor offences and leaving hardened criminals. Apocryphal tales or not, the brutal reality is that incarceration in TT is focused on containment and not readjustment. Wilson himself has referred to the institution under his charge as a "revolving door" prison.

The TT Prisons system is caught between pincers of overcrowding and outdated systems of prisoner management that have left officers vulnerable in the worst possible way. Over the last 16 years, 18 prisons officers have been murdered. Since 2012, the Judiciary has tested a drug treatment project which keeps guilty offenders out of prison if they complete a court mandated programme of monitored rehabilitation and restorative justice.

The Commissioner has shown promising signs that he is willing to walk his talk of being exasperated with the existing system of locking people up and forgetting them. Six weeks ago, the Prisons Service announced an Inmate Cricket Development Programme at the Maximum Security Prison. In response, la West Indies cricket players donated used gear to the project.

Last month, Wilson announced an expansion of early efforts at introducing debates into the prison system led by Newsday columnist Debbie Jacob, who works on literacy with inmates, into a wider engagement involving all inmates. He also announced a new initiative as part of the 180 About Turn Initiative, which will allow selected prisoners to have Skype calls with their children to read to them and help them with homework.

The Commissioner must clamp down on illegal contraband. In the 2015 prison break which cost the life of PC Sherman Maynard, prisoners had firearms and a grenade in their possession as they charged the gates of the Port of Spain prison from the inside.

There are significant costs to keeping people locked up and putting effective systems and opportunities in place that steer prisoners onto paths that reintegrate them with civil society will also be expensive. But in a nation that's under siege from crime, it's worth considering whether that math, which rarely weighs the value of our fellow human beings behind bars, hasn't led us to severely miscalculate the importance of changing lives instead of simply removing them from sight.

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