PM wants end to row
A nine-member special prison committee, appointed by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar ,will meet today to start investigations into the state of the nation’s prisons and address major issues, including a current impasse at Golden Grove, Arouca. The meeting comes on the heels of more than a week of protest by prison officers complaining of health and safety conditions in the country’s main prison facilities. That action in turn brought protest from prisoners, who complained of their treatment as a result of the officers’ action.
Persad-Bissessar announced the establishment of the committee in a press release yesterday. The meeting of the committee, which is to be chaired by criminologist Professor Ramesh Deosaran, is expected to take place at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair.
The other committee members are Prison Commissioner Martin Martinez, Inspector of Prisons Daniel Khan, National Security Minister Gary Griffith, Justice Minister Emmanuel George, acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams, attorney Wayne Sturge and general secretary of the Prisons Officers’ Association (POA) Gerard Gordon.
The release initially stated that a representative from the prison population would sit on the committee but a subsequent release late yesterday corrected the first and said the prisoners’ interests would instead be represented by Khan. The release said: “The Prime Minister said she had been personally monitoring the ongoing situation at the Golden Grove state prison and stated that she was deeply concerned over recent and continuing developments related to the prison and to the situation in general.”
It also stated that Persad-Bissessar met with members of the POA two months ago to discuss their issues which included firearms being provided to off-duty officers and affordable housing for officers. “The Prime Minister has also been advised that some of the urgent issues presented included concerns about overcrowding in prisons, a lack of available transportation to court, no airing or recreation time for prisoners and the cancellation of visitation rights of families and friends,” the release said.
Persad-Bissessar said she felt the committee would bring the issue to a speedy resolution.
Officers warned of backlash
The prison officers began their “go slow” protest last week, days after their colleague Andy Rogers was shot dead at a construction site in Malabar on November 7. Last Monday, another officer, Krishna Merhair, of Tunapuna Road, Tunapuna, was also shot near his home. He survived the attack. Since the officers’ protest began, there have been several reports of violent incidents between prisoners, including one last Friday in which eight prisoners were stabbed in a block clash.
There were also reports yesterday that a group of prisoners at the Golden Grove prison had set their cells on fire in protest but this could not be officially confirmed up to last evening. Speaking with the T&T Guardian by telephone yesterday, Martinez said he hoped the initiative would be successful in alleviating the concerns raised by his officers and the prisoners. “We have to try every solution. If that will bring some desired results to the process I am all for it,” Martinez said.
However, he pleaded with the POA to end their protest action before the prison system descends into chaos. “If this place descends into chaos, I am putting that squarely on the feet of the executive of the association,” Martinez said. “Any prisoner get kill from now on, or any officer get kill, the executive is to blame for that because they keep on heightening the tension unnecessarily,” he added.
While he said some protest action was justifiable in the wake of the violent attacks on officers, he accused the association of being impatient. “It is a process I have asked them to give us some time to get things going. We are trying but Rome was not built in a day, the problem did not come overnight so the solutions would not be found overnight,” he said. Martinez warned the officers that if prisoners continued to be neglected because of the action, they (the officers) would be directly affected.
“If the prisoners are not fed on time, they are denied visits, or are in anyway disadvantaged, it would be to the tragedy of the officers because they will feel the backlash,” Martinez said. Several calls were made to Gordon’s cellphone and that of association’s president Ceron Richards last evening but they all went unanswered. National Security Minister Griffith said he did not want to comment on the work of the committee until the PM officially speaks on the issue.
Khan also declined to comment on his appointment and his role on the committee when contacted yesterday.