THE TRUE measure of a society is how it treats its poor and dispossessed, and how it stands up to its most difficult challenges in a crisis. Without a doubt one of the most important decisions the Government must make at this time is how to vaccinate the men and women in our prisons. Vaccinating both prison officers and inmates is vitally important for making our country a safer place for all of us. It is also the right and humane decision to make at this time.
For those who feel that inmates should be at the end of the vaccine line, consider this: over 60 per cent of the people in our prisons have not been convicted of a crime. These people are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and they deserve to be treated fairly in this pandemic.
It is our duty to consider the deplorable conditions in our prisons and deem these places a national health hazard compounded by covid19 at this time. Prison cells are close together and overcrowded. Before covid19, some cells held seven or eight men in a space meant for one person.
There is no concept of physical distancing in jail, and even if there was, there is no way to practise it. Our prisons try to enforce mask-wearing, but I can only imagine that in a hot, confined space where there is no breeze, no fan and no air conditioning, men and women will find wearing a mask all the time difficult. Do we expect them to sleep with masks on too?
Inmates don’t have access to water to bathe and drink whenever they want. There is no running water in prison cells in places like the Port of Spain Prison and the Remand Yard. Inmates can’t boost their health and build immunity with a varied diet, vitamins and exercise, as we can. They can’t have hand sanitiser at their disposal to use whenever they want, as we can, because the alcohol makes it a fire hazard. There are no toilet facilities in cells in most of the prisons. Every day I think of the conditions in prison and think of the disaster just waiting to happen.
Prison officers need to be vaccinated expeditiously also. Last week, I know prison officers who showed up at designated centres to be vaccinated, only to find out that their vaccinations will be handled by the defence force. Prison officers move among our prisons to work, and they move through all walks of society. They live among us and they work in close contact with inmates living in squalor. Prison officers risk their health and their lives every day they show up for work in this pandemic, and we all expect them to show up for work every day. They go home to families, who are also now at risk. There is no way to lower the risks in prison. That is why vaccinating in prisons is so important.
The pandemic has meant that inmates face further postponements of their cases so we can’t count on the judicial system to lighten the load in prison. Inmates don’t have the support of their families during this crisis, and they don’t have the outlets we have for mental stress. They are trapped in cells with strangers. They have had few if any academic or enrichment programmes over the last 15 months to challenge their minds or sustain their spirit. At this time, they have fewer opportunities than ever to prepare them socially, academically and psychologically to face life in the “free world” when they do come out of prison someday, as most of them will.
Now, they will have the situation with covid19 vaccines to add to their list of frustration, disappointment and anger. They will remember how they were treated during this pandemic and recall being marginalised even futher by this society.
This country has failed inmates in countless ways. Many inmates in our prisons are victims of poverty, poor police investigations, gang politics and a clogged justice system where cases for capital offences are backed up for ten years. Education has failed them. We have no parole system and few programmes to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society.
The Ministry of Health can restore some semblance of decency, fairness and equality in our prisons by vaccinating inmates and prison officers expeditiously. Somehow, inmates have to feel safe. They must feel society cares. It’s the only way for all of us to feel safer.