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Keeping former offenders on the straight and narrow

Wayne Chance

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI Visit for our columns, media releases and more.

On Tuesday, February 20, I attended Vision on Mission’s (VOM) Preparation for release launch 2018, entitled: ‘Changing the Criminal Thinking’ — held at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca. Wayne Chance and various speakers spoke with passion.

Having spent a few days at a workshop in Tobago in January with Wayne and a number of NGO leaders who go the extra mile to lift T&T out of the depths of crime and violence to which we have descended, I know that all is not lost. There are enough good T&T citizens who continue to work tirelessly to build our nation.

Wayne and his VOM Team must be commended for the innovative ways in which they strive to achieve their mission of providing “rehabilitation, reintegration and resettlement services for prisoners, ex-offenders, deportees, delinquent youth and some socially displaced persons”.

While there is a widely held belief that the majority of persons in our prisons are of African descent, VOM’s recent study shows that the largest group of those incarcerated in the POS prison are of mixed descent. Fifty per cent of those in POS prison have reoffended and returned to prison 1–3 times, while the recidivism rate for 29 per cent is 4–6 times. Such data helps VOM to develop intervention programmes.

The challenge for us in T&T is to stop the revolving door. Glenda Jennings-Smith, Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of National Security, is correct when she said at the forum that civil society and the business community must come on board to support initiatives such as those instituted by the Government and by groups such as VOM.

A sense of hope filled my heart as I listened to the testimonials of Peter Holder who spent 33 years in prison and who received a Presidential pardon, and Michael Sennon, a deportee who spent 31 years in prison in the USA. Both of them are now gainfully employed and have turned their lives around.

Peter said: “It is important that we change, but change must not be cosmetic. While in prison I prayed to die. I have ascended from the valley to the mountaintop. There will be struggles but you have to focus on where you want to be—back in prison or to move forward? Being around positive people is important.”

Michael said: “I want to do more with my life and to be proud of myself. I try to set a good example now. Life is not about where you come from but where you are going.”

A belief in offenders’ ability to change must be backed up by policies and programmes that will help to keep them on the straight and narrow. While I was pleased to learn of the Government’s electronic monitoring scheme that will soon come on stream, I urge those on the Electronic Monitoring Committee to ensure that this scheme is linked to support mechanisms to reduce recidivism.

Transitioning back into society is challenging and will not happen by “vaps”. If one of the aims is to reduce the population in Remand Yard, then the initiative may not be successful if measures are not put in place to change ‘criminal thinking’ and to help individuals live productive lives.

If we are serious about tackling crime and criminality, we must address the root causes of crime in T&T, the effectiveness of our criminal justice system, as well as the inhumane conditions in our prisons and our outdated 1943 prison rules. Let’s ask ourselves, for example, “Are our prisons designed for rehabilitation?”

And as former US Congressman, Frank Wolf said: “We can’t just rail against crime. We must speak of the root problems – devastating family breakup, an insidious culture of violence that cheapens human life, skyrocketing prisoner recidivism rates that rob our communities of husbands and fathers – and recognize that there is a societal role in rehabilitation and restoration.”

There is no quick-fix for our social problems. Since the causes of crime are many and varied, we need an integrated/multidisciplinary/cross sector approach to address deficiencies. We would do well to move from a retributive system of justice to a restorative justice (RJ) approach.

An essential aspect of RJ involves self-examination/evaluation. Each of us must accept responsibility for our actions. We must reflect on ways in which we are contributing to the crime situation and ask ourselves what we can do to reduce crime. Let us all play our part to promote crime prevention, restore a sense of community and build the common good.