By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Dec. 23, 2020)
“People are brought to prison as a punishment, but not for punishment. — Willie Ojuli, Kenyan prison warden
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson, human rights lawyer and author of Just Mercy.
“Sometimes we see things we just can’t unsee, and then we have a choice as to how we respond to them … every person has gifts and talents and something to contribute to our society. Our society can only flourish when the inherent worth of each person is valued.”–Alexander Mc Lean, coordinator of Justice Defenders
Her Majesty’s Prison in Kingstown is a miserable place. Built 148 years ago, the cellblocks, like all holding cells at police stations across the country, reek with the stench of sweat and urine. Prisoners routinely sleep on the floor in overcrowded cells; the ration is insipid and innutritious. Teens, and young offenders mix, mingle and exchange notes with hardened criminals. Many are raped and or sexually abused by bullying criminals.
Addressing the closing of the assizes last Wednesday, Timothy Hazelwood, the new superintendent of prisons, told the court that only two prisons are HIV positive. We are reliably informed that that number represents an undercount. Far more damning was the revelation that 36 of the 403 inmates suffer serious mental illnesses with tarry medical intervention.
Alarmingly, 101 inmates are incarcerated for murder, while 276 or 66.03% of inmates are repeat offenders. A constituency breakdown shows that South Leeward leads with 58, followed by West Kingstown with 53, South Windward 38, Central Kingstown 35 and East St. George 28 inmates. The constituencies with the lowest number of inmates are Southern Grenadines with 17 and Northern Grenadines with 9.
Apart from murders, burglary — 63, robbery — 28 and theft — 18 indicate the stark reality that close to 40% of the population lives in poverty and over 45% of our youth, the section of the population most prone to crime are unemployed. Crime is also driven by the fact that there is a disconnect between what the society, through its mass media, the economic and political elite and the prosperity gospel of the religious leaders tell citizens is “the good life” and the failure of the very society to provide for the most basic needs of the vast majority of the population.
Rhetoric aside, the “get rich or die trying” mentality is rewarded. Instant gratification is celebrated and promoted as the desired way of life and living. Crime and social prostitution, moral decline and societal decay are now pervasive.
The statistics of 101 murders, 24 manslaughters, 16 attempted murder, and 40 wounding-related offences graphically illustrate that Vincentian society is a very violent place. While SVG recorded 35 homicides, Grenada has less than 15.
To deal with the spiralling crime problem, the courts have come up with sentencing guidelines:
Retribution: to show society’s abhorrence of crime and reflect its intolerance for criminal conduct.
- Deterrence: intended to be a restraint against potential repeat criminal activity by others and the particular criminal relapsing into criminal activity on release. Our repeat offenders rate of 66% indicates that specific deterrence is an ineffective tool to combat criminal behaviour that is spontaneous or spawned by addictions or necessity.
- Prevention: to protect society from those who persist in high rates of criminality.
- Rehabilitation: to engage the prisoner in activities that would assist him or her with reintegration into society after prison.
These principles are cushioned by a new set of sentencing guidelines that calls for stiffer sentences for most crimes. The guidelines remove the discretion that formally resided in the sentencing judges and compelled them to arrive at a sentence through a sentencing grip. This reality allowed a judge to sentence a prisoner, who was drugged and raped by his abuser to 31 years in jail for murder even though the condemned man also suffered mental health issues.
The long sentences we are witnessing come directly out of the American policy manuals, resulting in an explosion of the prison population in that country. Unless we swiftly disengage and reset, anticipate the warehousing of hundreds of young men to draconian sentences.
Rehabilitation is a commendable principle in sentencing, but it is all but non-existent in the criminal justice system’s daily functions. Prisoners are simply and callously warehoused out of sight and out of mind. It takes the occasional jailbreak to bring into focus the prisons and prisoners and even then citizens and high officials cavalierly speak of extrajudicial killings as a means of solving the problem.
The research is detailed and telling. Crime is a youthful endeavour. Sixty-four per cent of all the persons behind bars are younger than 49, yet we continue to hold more than 50 prisoners who have gone past age 50 rather than find ways to reintegrate them into society.
There is no parole system in SVG, which allows for early release once the parole board concludes that the prisoner is a fit and proper person to gain such favour from the state.
Take the case of Alpheus Horne. He has been incarcerated for a quarter of a century for the serious crime of rape. His sentence was life imprisonment. Had he committed rape today, he would be sentenced to less than 20 years. Horne has already served about 37 prison years and is now close to 60 years old. The prison authorities don’t consider Horne dangerous or a flight risk because they frequently send him to assist with chores.
A few years ago, Horne was sent to the Ministry of Telecommunications to assist with furniture movement. A filing cabinet slipped and broke his leg. He suffered months of pain and suffering, was never compensated for the injury and remained behind bars.
Any society committed to restorative justice will find a way to free Horne even on parole, but not this heartless, progressive outpost. And there are more such prisoners. Hazelwood and his deputy Bailey may be the new sheriffs at prisons, but don’t look for drastic changes for the better.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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