ASST Supt Charmaine Johnson knew she would be facing a monumental challenge when Prisons Commissioner Gerard Wilson asked her to be the superintendent of the Port of Spain (PoS) Prison in November 2017. With its population that hovers around 580 (400 of whom are in remand, waiting years for their trials), PoS Prison has proved to be a powder keg constantly threatening to explode.
“I was the superintendent of prison programmes, and that is where my heart is,” said Johnson. “When I spoke to my staff at all of the prisons (about the move), some of them found I was being selfish, and (felt) I would be doing more if I remained in programmes, rather than being stationed in one place.”
But Johnson accepted the challenge, becoming one of the first two women to be an acting superintendent in a TT prison. (Germaine De Graff is currently the acting superintendent of the Youth Training Centre (YTC).
There was much for Johnson to face in her new position: a lack of resources, disgruntled “clients,” as the prison service now refers to inmates, and low staff morale (two officers had been murdered).
“We don’t have a proper system in place, when an officer passes, for the staff in the station to get counselling. A lot of officers are walking around damaged and hurt. They come to work, but you can see in their eyes they have this pain and hurt. They have lost someone they worked with and they never know when it will be them – just because they’re doing their work,” Johnson explained.
From the day she became a prison officer, 28 years ago, Johnson said, she has always worked at giving service and making situations better. A woman’s touch proved useful for events in the programmes department.
“I think I may get a lot more done as superintendent not because I’m a woman, but because of the network I set up in the past.”
But Johnson has no illusions.
“It’s a man’s world,” she said with a wave of a hand sporting elaborately painted and decorated nails.
“As assistant superintendent, some people would not salute because I am a woman.
“We have gone beyond that here in Port of Spain. I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about me, but pay attention to the office I hold.’
“There are always some people who just feel a woman shouldn’t be in such a position,” she shrugged.
Excitedly, Johnson listed her current projects, which include repairing some of the infrastructure of a prison built in 1812. She sometimes jokes, “We’re afraid to even pound a nail in here.”
She raises funds by having the prison sell pastries and lunches on the weekend for the clients. The money goes for eye, dental and medical care for clients. Plans are under way to update the kitchen and get new equipment: fryers, chillers and sinks.
Johnson said her biggest surprise when she came in as a superintendent was that “so many simple needs had not been met. Dental care is a huge challenge.”
And then there were the general housekeeping issues: “Clearing garbage constantly so you don’t have the rodents (rats) having a field day here.”
Johnson smiled when asked to describe herself.
“Sometimes I can be quiet; and then very aggressive. I am a team player, but sometimes I am a one-man team, because I don’t like to ask people to do things three times when I know I can just get it done.
“I have a challenge measuring people by my own standards, and probably not understanding that everyone is not at the level I am, so I need to help them grow and develop just as I did. I have come a long way in how I manage my human resources.”
Her favourite place to go in the PoS prison is the remand yard.
“Everyone knows I am coming because they smell the perfume. I go there every day and talk to them about their issues.”
Johnson said she was seeing changes in the prison.
“I’m seeing men care more about themselves and others; taking pride in little things like tucking in their shirts.”
She feels much of the crime problem the country faces can be solved with better parenting.
“There are basic principles of respect and following rules that we learn as children – but no one sustained or enforced those principles at home with many of these young men.”
A lack of parenting is evident, she said, when clients come to prison and address those in charge as “Mother” or “Father.”
“They’re looking for that person to really care about them – to tell them, ‘Go and wash your hair,’ or ask, ‘Did you have something to eat?’ I understand and know – because I too went through my struggles in life. I know what it means to not have anything to eat for the day.”
The proof that she is building trust and respect in PoS prison, she said, lies in clients now calling PoS “a slippers jail,” meaning “you can leave your sneakers in the cell without expecting someone to take them.”
At the end of the day, Johnson said, “I am proud of my officers and staff. They have developed a method of managing clients while still caring for them. Officers are talking more, using less aggression, and interacting more.”
Johnson, who always wears a key pendant, given to her as a gift and blessed by Fr Christo of the Living Water Community, hopes her legacy will be “that I cared and I was instrumental in changing the lives of so many people that society turned their backs on.”
Supt Johnson feels she is up to the challenge.