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Prison changes needed for RJ system to work

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

“I am a better person; even if society sees me whatever way. I am reforming myself and I am utilising the opportunity that has been given, not in a negative way, but in a positive way to give back to society”.

This was the testimony of Natasha de Leon, an inmate of the Women’s Prison, Arouca at the Catholic Commission for Social Justice and Faculty of Law forum Understanding and Promoting Restorative Justice in TT at the Noor Hassanali Auditorium, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine.

De Leon was convicted of murder and spent 13 years 8 months on death row which she described as “a tormenting experience”. Her sentence was commuted to life. She attempted suicide several times. On the last occasion she felt the “hand” of God burst the noose. De Leon said through the grace of God and “a lot of prayer and fasting” she was able to feel the embrace of one of the victims of her crime and receive forgiveness.

“If you don’t accept you did something wrong, have hurt somebody, bring some form of closure to somebody then you know for a fact something is wrong and you need to check yourself,” de Leon said in her off-the-cuff and passionate delivery. She has visited different places, including schools, sharing her story. Feedback from youths has given her joy and peace knowing she has touched lives and deterred them “from coming behind bars”.

She spotlighted the poor conditions affecting remandees e.g. using pails for a toilet, delays in court cases and loss of communication with family. De Leon said the prison authorities have written trying to get wall-mounted phones installed. This has not happened so female inmates cannot keep in contact with their children.

Female inmates are allowed only two visits in May and December. Saturday visits were introduced but

this was stopped. She said children of inmates can be going through issues but the mothers “can’t do nothing”.

Pregnant women are separated from their babies soon after delivery and are expected when they return to prison “to function like it never happened”. Postpartum stress is another issue, “but who cares” de Leon asked.

She appealed for Death Row inmates—“the forgotten of society”, some jailed for more than 40 years and “have not seen daylight”. Also giving testimony about rehabilitation was Andrew Douglas, an inmate of the Maximum Security Prison, Arouca.

New strategy in prisons

Assistant Commissioner of Prisons, Offender Management Carlos Coraspi said although the prison system is retributive, the rehabilitation of inmates has taken place. But with a restorative justice system even more persons can be rehabilitated.

“Under a restorative justice system, if the offender takes responsibility for the crime and the hurt, that is a single indicator the person is prepared to engage in the process. It is not involuntary anymore but voluntary in the process of rehabilitation and it is in those circumstances the intervention programmes become imminently workable,” he said.

For 2017, there were approximately 3,900 prisoners out of which 2,500 are on remand. The preliminary enquiry was completed in about 1,100 of the 2,500 cases to go to trial.

Coraspi said traditionally, rehabilitation programmes are only offered for convicted offenders because of limited resources but with remanded persons in jail for extended periods “the maximum sentence indicator gives the opportunity now for the offender that if he or she engages in programmes that may lead to reduction in sentencing”.

He revealed Commissioner of Prisons Gerard Wilson has mandated a new strategic approach, utilising information from the Task Force Report on Prison Reform and Transformation (2002) and for restorative justice to be central to the prison’s role and function of protecting society.

‘RJ from an employee’s standpoint’ was the subject of President of the Prisons’ Association Ceron Richards’ presentation. He honed in on the issues which must be addressed if restorative justice is to be properly implemented such as infrastructure, transformation of the judicial system and work conditions.

Inmates awaiting trial, some for more than 15 years, are resentful and will not have the mindset to embrace change. “They are angry and that has been demonstrated in numerous clashes between officers and inmates,” Richards said. Now that the anti-gang legislation has been enacted, he was concerned about increased inmates and whether officers were sufficiently trained to deal with “the changing environment”.

Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of National Security, Glenda Jennings-Smith, said government was committed to reducing reoffending, improving rehabilitation and prison conditions, and adopting a Reintegrated Penal policy. The ministry was working with the Attorney General and minister of Legal Affairs on revisiting the Prison Rules of 1943, introducing a system of parole, community corrections, a youth judicial system, probation, and mediation. “All elements of a system that is restorative,” she said.

Observing a significant number of crimes are done by repeat offenders, she said it was “self-evident” rehabilitation of offenders and their effective re-entry into society was critical for a reduction.

Exact data on recidivism is not available but it has been estimated half of inmates in prisons are “repeat offenders aged 18 years and under”. In response, Jennings-Smith said the judiciary on March 6 this year

opened the first rehabilitative children court to ensure they are not integrated into the older prison population. She mentioned legislative amendments as part of developing a youth justice system.