For some years now, our penal system has been undergoing the change process from one driven by retribution to one of restoration and rehabilitation of the convict in order that the system generates a productive member of society and breaks the cycle of recidivism which stood at 56 per cent, according to a 2008 OAS report.
Each successful participant spells a reduction in crime and possibly, a reduction in the severity of the crime compared to that previously committed.
COPCAM (the Council of Prisons Chaplains and Ministers) is an institution of the Prisons Service which works within the prison system.
Its principal objectives are to engage inmates using methods of rehabilitation and the philosophy of restorative justice.
It meets them by developing and conducting training programmes which educate and/or provide inmates with a skill and the tools for survival in the outside world.
Apart from completing secondary education, some have embraced the tertiary stage and even been awarded scholarships in pursuit of these studies.
COPCAM also provides counselling services to prison officers who are traumatised by events inside and outside the prison walls via its partnership with their representative association.
For example, some of the officers have not embraced the idea of restorative justice and may still uphold the view that convicts are beyond reform.
Victims of crime also fall under COPCAM’s umbrella, COPCAM having engaged in training in counselling, mediation and community interventions in order to equip participants to work with the wherewithal in their communities, "mediating between offenders and offendees to bring healing where crime has hurt". Through a partnership with the Unit of Social Problem Analysis and Policy of the University of the West Indies and CERA, COPCAM is engaged in an initiative which includes working with persons and communities affected by crime, using faith-based members as ‘first responders’ to crime, with the focus on victims.
COPCAM’s work begins with the orientation of each inmate as he or she enters prison.
This includes presentation of its programmes and initiatives to combat illiteracy.
It must catch the eye of each entrant, as participation by the latter is entirely voluntary.
Inmates are also segregated by means of an assessment of the type of crime for which they have been incarcerated.
Those guilty of capital offences, sex offences, narcotic offences and violent crimes are separated from the general prison population, for special focus in terms of anger management, dispute resolution and specialised counselling.
Like Vision on Mission, COPCAM also conducts exercises for inmates due to be discharged from prison as early as one year before release in order to prepare them for their freedom, adjustment to society and the workplace.
The identification of resources for this type of vocation is not an easy fix for COPCAM.
They come from NGOs, faith-based organisations, New Life Ministries, the Prison Fellowship of Trinidad and Tobago and the "Walk Tall" programme of the Roman Catholic Church, through volunteers who are self-financed and committed to rehabilitation, reform and the reintegration.
COPCAM is of the opinion that a parole system is part and parcel of the rehabilitation process.
Minister of Justice Herbert Volney has publicly stated that this is one of his new ministry’s projects and Minister in the Ministry of National Security, Subhas Panday, has voiced support for this initiative.
The Chamber expects that Minister Volney will consult with stakeholders at the appropriate time, either before or when the Bill is just first drawn, in order to receive comments in the true spirit of democracy and inclusion evoked by the People’s Partnership.
Parole has been a very controversial concept, especially for victims of violent crime and sex offences.
The composition of Parole Boards, representations of the views of victims and their families as well as the remorse and mental state of the convict, are very sensitive issues impacting upon qualification for parole.
To this, we add that repeat offenders, perpetrators of violent crime and those who exude no remorse or disposition to rehabilitation and changing their behaviour, ought to be low down the totem pole of parole, if this is to redound to the benefit of society as a whole.
What, then, is the role of the business community in COPCAM’s continuous efforts of reform of prison inmates?
The obvious answer is to devote some time to training in the basic principles of starting and sustaining legitimate business, educating those due to be released about some basics of business operations as well as savings.
Existing space constraints make it impossible for all interested inmates to attend classes or vocational programmes staged by COPCAM, and encouraging the authorities to address this, thereby giving value to the inmate as well as helping to increase national literacy, is another opportunity for private sector participation.
In order to assist in the procurement of support for resources (psychological, sociological, material) COPCAM needs to develop its own database and the Chamber’s Crime and Justice Committee has referred it to the National Drug Council for a start.
Finally, private enterprises must make a more vigorous effort to offer employment, whenever vacancies arise, to graduates of COPCAM’s programmes.
We acknowledge that many businesspeople may be hesitant to employ a former inmate, but COPCAM does not leave the ex-inmate to paddle his own canoe upon discharge.
Its networking with support groups, seeking to anchor ongoing relationships with the inmate in his new community, keeping an eye on him or her if only to make the latter more marketable, all inspire confidence in the prospective employer and identify opportunities for the seed of COPCAM to fall on fertile soil.
It’s all about saving a life and what greater reward can we all seek?