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Tuesday 12 November 2019
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Hello! ‘Unlock’ the cellphones

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob

NO ONE knew Port of Spain (PoS) Prison debaters’ secret until Prison Commissioner Gerard Wilson revealed that closing debater Cornelius Laborde’s girlfriend had died the night before the debate with Women’s Prison on October 9.

“But he’s here to do battle,” said Wilson.

Laborde would later say he cried all night, but used his grief to find inspiration.

Daryl Wade opened the debate about legalising cellphones in prisons.

“Our opponents will try to make you believe unsubstantiated claims that cellphones in prison are used to call hits, but no one in prison or no civilian has ever been convicted of this,” said Wade.

Predicting his opponent’s arguments, Wade said, “They will try to make you believe that there are other means for us to communicate, but they won’t mention these methods are unreliable. Even getting material to write a letter is difficult. The welfare department is a problem. It takes welfare one month to inform your family that you need a visit or even a change of clothes for court.”

With unexpected humour Wade added, “As for the phone jammers in prison, they should just form a J’Ouvert band because then maybe we will see some serious jamming.”

Wade outlined his team’s plan. “We are proposing legalising phones with proper, appropriate management. Cellphones will be sold at the canteen. There will be internet access, access to e-book, online games, movies and CXC material. No social media. Calls to certain numbers will be allowed.

Shastri Jagroo’s opening remarks presented “headline news” including the PoS Prison breakout of July 2015 and the assassination of MSP Superintendent Wayne Jackson. She linked both events to cellphones in prison.

“There’s a fine line between being compassionate and downright irresponsible. Cellphones will compromise our security,” she said.

Her arguments hinged on protecting prison officers, and they earned her a tie for first place at the end of the debate.

The women held their own in spite of their unexpected challenge: a key debater had to return to court on the day of the debate, which meant a last-minute substitute had to be inserted in the team.

I found Netfa Felix’s questioning to be the most brilliant I had heard in this year’s debates. He first asked Amelia Maharaj, “Are you a logical or illogical thinker?” When she gave the obvious answer, he chipped away it and at her answers, trying to prove they were illogical.

His questioning pointed out that illegal Venezuelan immigrants had been a problem and government dealt with that so government could deal with illegal cellphones by making them legal.

Felix’s deep voice tends to make him sound heavy-handed, and he cut off Maharaj’s answers, which always brings the judges’ ire, so he fell to last place.

PoS debater Ronnie John answered Tanika Granger’s questions solemnly, hesitating sometimes while he framed answers. He landed in eighth position. With tighter questions, Granger could have climbed above seventh position.

Aaron Garcia’s rapid-fire rebuttal accused the women of using propaganda and alleged statements. He needed a framework to encase his questions so that he could rise above sixth place. The women’s rebuttal led by Asha Sooklal advanced the team’s argument more than it succeeded in picking apart PoS’s position, but she climbed to fourth place.

Then came the moment of truth: Cornelius Laborde stood to deliver his closing arguments, claiming the legalisation of cellphones would facilitate communication, maintain and build family relationships.

“Cellphones are the number one smuggled item in the prisons, but they uncover less than ten per cent of cellphones and they are replaced by the end of the week. We are posing a strategic alliance with cellphone companies, inmates and prisons.”

He said jammers and volting (using body cavities to hide cellphones) damaged inmates physically.

He then pointed out how vitally important they were for communication. “I got arrested when my daughter was two months old. With a legal phone, I could have heard her first words or seen her first steps.”

He added another indelible image: “One evening my cell mate’s phone rang, his four-year-old son called and said, ‘Granny is not moving.’ She had a mild heart attack, and was saved by an illegal cellphone in prison.”

Laborde’s charisma earned him a tie for first place, and a brief respite from his grief.

Joseanne Alleyne’s closing couldn’t help the women claim victory. They lost to the men with a score of 640 to 600.

PoS Prison faces Maximum Security Prison (MSP) in the finals in Woodford Square on October 13. The public is invited.

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