IN THE context of the recent murder of Prisons Superintendent Wayne Jackson and the subsequent launch of a Prison Task Force by Minister of National Security Stuart Young and Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith, the murder of prison officer Darren Francis is an even deeper embarrassment and affront to the State.
“The State is being attacked and the State is not pushing back,” claimed Ceron Richards, head of the Prison Officers’ Association, this week. Pushing back or no, the continued attack — and the evidence suggests we remain in the throes of such an attack — represents a dangerous crisis which must be staunched at all costs.
Over the past 28 years, a total of 23 prison officers have been murdered yet about one-fifth of those killed were murdered this year alone. Francis, who ran the prison radio station, was the fifth officer to be killed within a few months, and the second in weeks.
Jackson, who was the head of the Maximum Security section of the Golden Grove Prisons in Arouca, was shot dead outside his Malabar home on October 2. On October 4, Kyle Ferreira was shot at while driving along Foster Road in Sangre Grande and a day later, the home of Khalil Baksh suffered fire damage after unknown assailants firebombed it.
Amid a show of force, the Prison Task Force was set up with an unclear mandate and time-frame and legislation was promised for next January. These plans, however, should be scrapped in favour of more urgent interventions. What exactly is happening at the Maximum Security Prison? Are mobile phones being jammed or are they not?
The apparent concession that some convicts are still able to reach the outside world is a worrisome and unacceptable admission. It may well be useful to intercept such communications but what use is that if such measures do not prevent killings? And the problem is not only what’s happening behind prison walls. It seems likely wider society is complicit.
Firstly, through the action of corrupt prison officers who may well be playing direct and indirect parts in the murder of their colleagues. Secondly, through the community that is executing hits and cooperating with criminal elements, whether inside jail or outside. “Robbing a cigarette truck in TT is carrying more blasted weight than killing of prison officers,” lamented Richards.
While we empathise with the emotion of his reaction, we cannot concur with his oversimplification of what is a very complex issue. Nor do we accept a general strike as a solution. The sad reality is with 1,301 vacant posts in the Prison Service, this problem cannot be fixed overnight.
A new recruitment drive is an opportunity to deepen the process of vetting and to reform prison culture. But without the immediate appointment of a commissioner of prisons, deputy commissioner, assistant commissioner of prisons, and superintendents we cannot see a way forward.