THIS country’s penal system came in for international criticism on Monday when a small, local delegation stood before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHCR) at the Organisation of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington DC.
The delegation pleaded its case on behalf of dozens of people locked up on remand, including battered women, who have languished in jail awaiting trial with some for much longer than the actual sentence for the crimes they are accused of.
Margarette May Macaulay, IAHCR rapporteur on the rights of people of African descent and against racial discrimination, who is from Jamaica, expressed shock at what she heard from the TT delegation. So stunned was she that Macaulay even suggested putting pen to paper to formally write the TT government led by Prime Minister Dr Rowley, who is in New York attending the United Nations (UN) general assembly.
“This sounds very bad for the common law system...I am shocked. Absolutely shocked! As you know in the common law system and the remand system, some people are remanded to a specific date to be brought back to court for the judge to check on the position of the case, and the judge to protect the constitutional rights of the person accused.
“If the prosecution says they are not ready after a certain amount of time, and normally it’s two sessions, the judge must release that person conditionally or unconditionally,” Macaulay said. Her strong reaction followed presentations by Dr Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Dean of the Faculty of Law, UWI, St Augustine campus; Shyra Wattley; and Jenelle Corraspe in which they analysed TT’s penal system when it comes to the rights of people – especially battered women – in jail awaiting trial. The submissions by the TT contingent before the IACHR were streamed globally. Belle Antoine told the commission the problem of excessive detention on remand has assumed exorbitant proportions, pointing out that in some cases, the period of remand exceeded the longest length of sentence prescribed as punishment upon conviction.
“Alarmingly, TT has the second highest remand population in the region, second only to Haiti, with some 60 per cent of prisoners on remand. So that the majority of persons suffering in our jails have not even been found guilty of any crime,” Belle Antoine told the IAHCR.
She revealed statistics which visibly shocked members of the IAHCR panel at the OAS. She said that of the more than 2,271 prisoners on remand in TT, 34 per cent, or one-third, have been incarcerated for more than five years, while 12.5 per cent have been on remand awaiting trial for more than ten. She said that, incredibly, there is a person in jail in TT, awaiting trial for the past 21 years.
“In June 2019, we saw the latest example of such travesties when three men, who had been on remand for ten years, were found innocent and acquitted of murder,” Belle Antoine told the IAHCR.
Belle Antoine said when their clinic visited the prison remand population to further investigate this issue, they observed a distinct and disturbing pattern of a link between female remandees incarcerated for murder and gender-based violence, revealing a sub-layer to the already urgent general remand problem.
“Such women,” Belle Antoine said, “Have been victims of domestic violence and are now accused of killing their partners. We, therefore, contend that within the remand travesty, there are also serious infringements of the right to equal treatment, in terms of its gender dimensions.
"It is one, like so many other gender issues, that has been invisibilised,” she charged. “Statistics reveal an alarming 58.5 per cent (nearly two-thirds) of women remandees on charges of murder are victims of domestic violence, at least those we know of. Some of these women have been on remand for over 12 years, awaiting trial.”
Commissioner of Prisons Gerard Wilson, who made a statement via video, said there was a problem with self-development within the remand yard.
While incarcerated prisoners have a number of self-development courses such as training programmes, life skills programmes and anger management, those in remand yard do not, and some may spend over ten years in prison and leave without any self-improvement.