Making prisons secure, safe

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -


WE ARE really good at sweeping problems under the rug. Take for instance that story on March 21 about five inmates escaping from their dormitory at the Golden Grove Prison (GGP) in Arouca. I have many questions about that.

First and foremost, how did five inmates from Carrera, a maximum-security prison, end up being transferred to GGP, a minimum-security prison? What is the procedure to make this move, and who decides on downgrading an inmate’s risk level?

Prison officers on the line would not have made that decision. Approval would have come from the highest ranks. So, how were those inmates chosen for transfer, and who ultimately takes responsibility for making such a move?

How about the question of how five men escaped from their dormitory? Was this a space targeted for repairs, and, if so, why weren’t they made before transferring inmates to that space? If inmates noticed a problem to exploit, shouldn’t prison officers have noticed it too?

Acting Prisons Commissioner Deopersad Ramoutar reportedly said in an interview that prison officers were not responsible for this prison escape. Isn’t the job of prison officers to prevent escapes? If they’re not responsible, then who is?

Here is why this incident of five inmates breaking out of prison puzzles me.

My sources tell me that these inmates volunteered to be transferred to Golden Grove. As a civilian representing an NGO that has worked in prison programmes, I can tell you that any inmates volunteering for transfer to another prison would ring alarm bells for me.

Each prison has its own distinct culture, and inmates normally feel fiercely loyal to the prison where they have established relationships and some support systems.

This is the case even for the Remand Prison and the Port of Spain Prison, which are two of the worst places to be held. There’s no running water or toilet facilities in overcrowded cells – but try getting inmates to leave one of those two prisons.

In the debate programme I ran along with the Prison Service, inmates had opportunities to move to other prisons and participate on other debate teams, and most often they refused to go. One inmate who made the all-star team refused his spot because it meant a transfer to the Maximum Security Prison.

Also, I recall an incident when prisons planned a mass transfer of inmates from the Port of Spain Prison and inmates joined programmes to prevent themselves from being transferred.

So why would anyone want to trade Carrera for GGP?

Those are two vastly different environments; two extremely different cultures. Everyone in prison would know GGP is more relaxed, because inmates are housed there for petty or nonviolent offences, as opposed to Carrera with more stringent rules for high-risk inmates.

Finally, the question is this: are our prisons run as efficiently and safely as they should be? We need to ensure that all prison officers are the most qualified for their posts. They can’t be chosen merely because they look good on paper or because of seniority. Those at the top of the hierarchy should have a heart for the job and a vision to take the institution forward. They need to be selfless, exemplary leaders and believe in prison programmes and restorative justice.

The position of prisons commissioner should not allow for the whims and fancies of the person sitting in the leadership role at the moment to supersede the vision and mission of the prison system. I have worked under some of the most admirable prisons commissioners you could ever find – Sterling Stewart, Dane Clark, Gerard Wilson – but there have been some commissioners who have not been so keen on programmes.

It’s time for prisons to be run as an institution with clearly defined outcomes that every commissioner must uphold. Yes, each commissioner should bring originality and creativity to his post, but the institution must have a clear direction upheld by all commissioners. That would include commitment to skill-based programmes and restorative justice. Commissioners must value the opinions of men and senior women prison officers who serve them, find ways to improve employees’ skills and give senior officers more autonomy. When Wilson served as commissioner, he once said that 95 per cent of inmates will re-enter society. Is prisons successful in preparing their return to society?

The prisons commissioner’s job must be more transparent to the public, because we, the people out here in the “free world,” have to deal with the repercussions of their decisions when inmates hit the streets after serving their sentence – or, as in this case, before.


"Making prisons secure, safe"

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