Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

TRINIDAD: Sharing a Cell with Cockroaches and Rats

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - One of the newest opposition politicians to join the Trinidad and Tobago Senate, Verna St Rose-Greaves knows a lot about human rights abuses.

A former social worker and volunteer with Amnesty International, she is using a new avenue to get the Trinidad and Tobago government to pay attention to rampant human rights abuses within the confines of its prison walls.

In an emotional maiden address to the Senate earlier this month, Rose-Greaves, of the United National Congress (UNC), spoke of the horrific living conditions of the country’s estimated 5,000 prisoners.

She described how prisoners were made to “put their hands into a plastic bucket to scrub and dislodge faecal matter” that was left to bubble overnight.

“You would see prison officers with pain on their faces. These arrangements are degrading. Grown men and women held in cells… without sanitary facilities, forced to defecate in the presence of fellow prisoners in buckets, in plastic bags and on paper to be poured into plastic buckets… And we talk about human rights,” she said.

“In the evening, they must stuff their ears and their nostrils, they must put bread in a corner to deflect the cockroaches from crawling into their unguarded orifices,” she added.

Last month, officers from Trinidad’s death row charged that there was an infestation of roaches and rats in the cells, and said their complaints had been ignored by officials.

Rose-Greaves added that prisoners also had to “press their backs against the wall” in the evening, afraid to sleep because of the fear of being raped.

“How does a man admit in a hostile environment that he was raped in prison… that he had sex with other men? What are the implications for his life in prison, for his life outside of prison?’ she asked.

Criminologist Ramesh Deosaran said it was imperative for the government to launch an inquiry into sexual abuse in its prisons.

“When you rape somebody, you tend to take away the last vestige of their dignity. You leave them bruised, sometimes permanently. Yes, you have to be punished for a crime when you go to prison, but does it mean to say they should be raped, bullied, taken advantage of?” he asked.

Deosaran, an independent legislator and former head of the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the West Indies (UWI), said that a study he conducted five years ago indicated that 63 percent of the men in prison were not married and had left 8,000 children behind. Half were between the ages of 18 and 30.

“These are a group of young, virile men, hormone-driven, having had long experiences in sexual intercourse, and you’re putting them in prison without any other avenue, you could imagine the challenge they face biologically,” he said.

The Caribbean Umbrella Body for Restorative Behaviour (CURB), which groups seven independent non-governmental organisations here, said that overcrowding has led to problems like poor sanitation and hygiene, rampant disease and gang violence.

Rose-Greaves noted that the laws governing the prisons date back to 1838, and the main prison building here was built in 1812.

“That is the year Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia,” she said, adding that the prisons were “dank, dark hell-holes, devoid of light, natural or otherwise.”

The Patrick Manning government says it is in the process of reforming the prison system.

Last week, it successfully tabled legislation allowing for compulsory drug-testing of prisoners in a bid to stem the illegal drug trade behind prison walls.

National Security Minister Martin Joseph said the legislation is part of overall plans to revamp the prison system.

His junior minister, Donna Cox, who has direct responsibility for the prisons, said that an Inmate Assessment Centre, Forensic Psychiatric Facility, Non-traditional Prison Industries and a Female Juvenile Facility will soon be constructed as part of the efforts to better manage the inmates and ease overcrowding.

“There was a time when persons saw the prison as a separate entity but today, the experts understand that what happens or does not happen in the prison has a direct impact on the whole question of crime, particularly when we talk about recidivism,” she said.

In 2001, a government-appointed task force recommend the adoption of a “restorative justice philosophy” as opposed to a “retributive philosophy”, although it appears that there was little follow-up to the report.

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