Appeal Court upholds judge's findings in 2006 prison riot lawsuit

THREE Appeal Court judges have upheld a ruling of retired Justice Judith Jones who, in 2012, ruled a group of prisoners suffered “unjustified and unreasonable” attacks at the hands of prison and police officers during a prison riot in 2006.

Justices of Appeal Nolan Bereaux, Peter Rajkumar, and Vasheist Kokaram dismissed the State’s appeal of Jones’s findings for prisoners Gabriel Joseph and Antonio Sobers while dismissing the appeal of a third prisoner, Clint Wilson.

Jones had been asked to determine whether the attacks on 57 prisoners, who were involved in a prison riot on November 11, 2006, were justified. The riot occurred at the Remand Yard prison facility at Golden Grove, Arouca. Some of the prisoners were beaten with batons and others were exposed to tear gas and shot with rubber bullets.

The prisoners represented three different categories of prisoners. Sobers’s lawsuit represented prisoners who sustained injuries and were treated at the hospital. Joseph’s represented a category of prisoners who sustained injuries that were treated at the prison infirmary while Wilson’s represented a category of prisoners who allegedly sustained injuries but had no medical records documenting them.

Wilson was not awarded any relief while assessment for damages for the group of prisoners represented in Sobers and Joseph’s lawsuits was to be referred to a judge or Master before the State and Wilson appealed.

The Court of Appeal had been asked by the State to set aside Jones’s findings in Sobers and Joseph’s claims.

However, in dismissing the State’s appeals, Rajkumar, who delivered the ruling, said the judge was not found to be “plainly wrong” in her assessment of the evidence.

“The evidence as a whole can reasonably be regarded as justifying that court’s conclusion.”

He said, “an appellate court is not entitled to review evidence as though it were itself a trial court making findings of fact for the first time unless the trial judge can be demonstrated to have been plainly wrong.”

However, he did question the agreement to divide the claims by the group into three categories. It had also been agreed that the cases in each category would be bound by the court’s findings in the action representing their category.

Rajkumar said there would have been logic in the agreement in Wilson’s case where the prisoners in that category did not have a medical record to corroborate their claims of injuries.

“The logic of doing so in respect of Mr Sobers and Mr Joseph is less clear,” he admitted, saying it was a matter of fact and evidence specific to each claimant.

“Despite the number of claimants involved, it is difficult to understand the basis of the categorisation, and the agreement that was presented to the trial judge, that the outcome of the cases of Mr Sobers and Mr Joseph would be binding upon others when it had not been demonstrated that they were similarly circumstanced in a necessary manner at the time they received those injuries.”

He said the rationale for a case being selected as a binding test case should be based on an established “common logical, factual and material connection” of the circumstances of those in the class.

Rajkumar acknowledged it would have been a tedious exercise to assess each case but because the concern only arose after the hearing, the Appeal Court has agreed to have each of the prisoners who were entered into the test case agreement address these concerns in writing.

In her ruling, Jones had called on authorities to provide training for prison officers on the appropriate use of force. She said, "Force must be used as a last resort."

In her judgment, Jones noted High Court records showed there were 302 assault and battery claims against people employed by the State from September 2005 to May 2012.

She had, "As a society we have an obligation to ensure that persons employed in the protective services are psychologically suited and equipped to properly discharge the responsibility."

Jones had also advocated for a revision of the existing prison rules to ensure continued security in our prisons.

“…I am not for one moment advocating the removal of those safeguards which ensure that the power placed in the hands of the jailer is not abused. I am advocating however that the rules be revisited to ensure that they reflect the changes wrought by time and to guarantee that their use becomes one of the main tools in ensuring effective governance within our prison system.”

The prisoners were represented by attorneys Gerald Ramdeen, Umesh Maharaj and Dayadai Harripaul.

The State was represented by Karlene Seenath, Vandana Ramadhar and Kendra Mark.

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