Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Better jail conditions best for everyone

Express editorial logo335

Mark Fraser

 Once again, a prisoner has been killed under suspicious circumstances within the system. Steven Abdool, 22, died from multiple blunt force trauma when he allegedly tried to escape from the Golden Grove prison and was “subdued”, to use the official euphemism, by prison guards. 

 In the case of Mr Abdool, that subduing involved several prison guards beating him until he was dead. This beating of inmates is apparently a common occurrence inside prison walls, given that such incidents only come to light when prisoners take the matter to court or when, as in this latest case, the prisoner dies.

 Such killings happen all too frequently in Trinidad and Tobago’s penal system, and no one ever suffers the consequences. This is unacceptable, since such acts could might well be murder or, at least, manslaughter. And the more often prison guards escape any consequences for these transgressions, the more frequent such beatings and killings will become. This is especially likely as prison cells, already holding two to three times the capacity they were built for, become even more crowded with the passage of time.

 After all, it is not the case that prison guards are inherently brutal and murderous. But psychological experiments, as well as real-world observations, have demonstrated that even ordinarily decent human beings, placed in an environment where they have authority over other persons who have reason to defy them, will readily become cruel and even psychopathic. 

This means that ensuring that prison guards who abuse their power are punished is only a partial solution. A more effective approach would be to change the environment within which the officers operate. The Inspector of Prisons 2012 Report lays out all the infrastructural changes required. Practically and psychologically, the most pressing of these is the provision of adequate toilet facilities. Present conditions dehumanise the inmates, with deleterious effects on both them and the guards, since human beings are more apt to oppress and savage those whom they perceive as less than human. For this reason, the guards themselves need to be trained, psychologically, in anger management and, practically, in how to subdue prisoners through martial arts holds, rather than by beatings with batons. 

These are relatively simple and inexpensive measures which would at least start improvement of T&T’s penal system. Yet, despite recommendations stretching back  decades, few improvements have been made by successive political regimes. This disdain for human rights by the authorities, and indeed the general public, itself undermines any notions of justice in the society. And, if a more pragmatic and self-interested reason is required, a lack of respect for prisoners’ rights makes jail a training school for criminals rather than a rehabilitative institution.