“Akili Charles, may God rest his soul, will not be forgotten. He opened doors for inmates,” said an inmate I’ll call Charles Gear.
January 11 marked the 12th year Gear had been in remand on murder charges, but he is now out of prison on bail. Gear used the ground-breaking law that allows murder-accused to seek bail while being held in remand.
The law resulted from a case brought against the State by the late Akili Charles, an inmate at Port of Spain Prison who had spent nine years in remand before his murder charge was dismissed.
A team of lawyers under Senior Counsel Anand Ramlogan represented Charles all the way to the Privy Council when the State appealed the case as it worked its way through the courts.
The lawyers and Charles, a former debater for the Port of Spain Prison, argued that murder accused should have the right to bail.
The news that the Privy Council had upheld Charles’s case gave hope to inmates, who often remain in remand for over a decade as cases move through the sluggish judicial system.
“In the beginning, everyone was going head first to apply for bail after the law was upheld, but the first person we knew who applied got turned down. Then everyone mashed brakes, looked around and waited to see who would get turned down next.”
Inmates, Gear said, were not convinced the new law would work. They soon realised – as Charles knew and expressed before he was shot to death last July outside his home – that the system would not automatically grant bail for everyone who applied.
“We knew that nobody in the country really cared if we got bail, but the law gave inmates courage and confidence to apply, and if they qualify, they will get through. I am proof of that,” said Gear.
Gear applied for bail in August of 2022. His first bail hearing was on August 30.
“The prosecution asked for some time to get their house together. The judge gave a 21-day adjournment. On September 20, I got a 14-day adjournment. I went back on October 4 and after that, I kept getting seven days of adjournment.”
He went to court eight times.
On November 30, before bail was granted, Gear fell ill with an infection and spent ten days in Mt Hope hospital. He was finally awarded bail on December 6.
“The State didn’t put up a fight because I had everything in place. The programmes I did while in prison – including anger management and the debate programme – helped me a lot. I had good recommendations from prison and people outside.”
Gear returned to remand from the hospital while his bail was being processed.
“Inmates were celebrating when I got back. They heard before I got back from the hospital. I don’t know how.”
Gear said that people don’t realise how important this law is to inmates.
“Prison is over-populated because of the time it takes to go to trial, but we lose more than time while we wait for our trials. I lost my grandmother, father, cousins and an uncle while I was locked up. I lost my job. I left when my daughter was four. She is 16 now.
"She asked me every year, ‘Are you coming home this year?’
"I would say, ‘Yes.’ She wanted to make sure I was there for her graduation.
"When my daughter saw me on that Tuesday morning I came home, the only thing she didn’t do was drop dead.”
Gear said the bail law is about more than getting out of prison. It is about re-establishing the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“If we believed that people are innocent until proven guilty, our trials would happen in a timely manner. In our point of view, they put us in prison for over a decade and it comes like you are doing a prison term. It feels like you’re guilty and you have to prove your innocence.”
Gear said, “I got locked up at 24. I’m now 36. People come in older than that, lie down in prison for a decade or more, don’t learn a trade, and they’re too old to get a job when they come out.”
Ramlogan made a similar point after Charles won his case.
He said, “Judicial discretion is required considering chronic delays in the criminal justice system, which causes murder-accused persons to spend between eight and ten years on remand before they face a trial. The system is eroding. The presumption of innocence is devalued, if not completely destroyed.”
Gear said he often asks himself, “Where would we be without Akili Charles’s case? He fought for all of us, which was the right thing to do.
"The time we’re spending in remand gets longer. Some will get through with bail. Some won’t get through because they are flight risks and other reasons. Bail won’t be that easy to get. It only seems easy, but nothing is easy.”
The number of inmates in prison on remand generally hovers around 65 per cent of the prison population. Gear said the ones who will get bail will have proved they deserve it.
“For people who are afraid of this act, honestly speaking, a man could be how bad, and he isn’t going to do anything stupid to get back into prison. I think 95 per cent of the people who come out on bail will bat in their crease, because the conditions are not nice in prison. They want their families. They want a fair chance in courts and in life. They’ll behave.”
Many inmates who get bail have to check in at a police station five times a week. Gear has to sign a register at a police station twice a week. They must inform the court if they change residence.
Gear believes it will take another two to three years for his trial to be completed.
“People don’t realise the injustice of this long wait,” he said. “We're still in a retributive stage in this country – not a reformative or restorative justice mode. People would rather mind an inmate in prison rather than re-integrate him in society.”
Gear believes we’re heading towards inmates spending 15 years on remand waiting for their trials.
“And many of these men and women have no support out there. Thank God I have a family who loves me.”
He believes the Bail Act could have an impact on preventing crime.
“Those who spend long periods of time in remand get bitter and they are capable of learning about crime from men around them. You can learn a lot in prison that is not good too.
“Think about it: you can’t read, which impedes your chances of getting a job. You might have pleaded guilty just to get out of prison, so for sure you’re not getting a job out there (with a conviction). If you didn’t have access to programmes to teach you a skill, you can’t survive. So you just learn more about crime in prison and do that to survive.”
Ramlogan describes the law that came out of Charles’s case as “transformational.” After the Privy Court judgment in favour of Charles, Ramlogan asked two important questions. “Given that we had no bail for murder for almost 100 years, is the country any safer? Are there fewer murders?”
“Somehow,” Gear said, “we need to feel there is justice in this country.”