Like many fellow citizens, I was shocked on learning of the brutal assassination of Dana Seetahal, SC. Early reports about the type and size weaponry used were equally traumatic, and I still have not come to terms with what all of this means to me as a public commentator who often writes around sensitive issues, as well as a citizen who loves his country dearly and expects to live here for the remainder of his natural life.
Several days later, there is still a lot of fear and trembling abroad the country, and a lot of uncertainty about the future. Many are muttering that the “coming anarchy” about which I wrote in one of my columns is no longer a distant phenomenon. It is here on our doorsteps.
Dana was one of our upstanding citizens, and a distinguished legal luminary whose counsel was widely sought, acting either for plaintiffs or for defendants. She worked for the State as well as for persons or firms in the private sector. Given the number and variety of the matters with which she handled, there has been much controversy as to whether her assassination was as we say, “gang related”, or whether there were other issues about which few of us know much or anything. A majority seem to believe that the assassination was related to her as a public prosecutor and not because she patronised a nearby casino from time to time. Some who claim inside information believe that Dana was a potential whistle-blower and paid with her life for what she promised to reveal.
I myself have no superior knowledge and have to wait until the guns stop smoking.
There was much talk about sending for foreign forensic help. Thus, many were shocked by the headlines which alleged that Dana was the victim of a “hit” orchestrated from inside our prison, and that the police and other intelligence agencies have a pretty good idea who the “shotter” (those who pull the triggers for a fee) is, how much he was paid, and where he is now to be found. Some were also even more shocked to read that the “shotter” is a former prison escapee who had surrendered to the authorities, and that he is under surveillance 24/7. How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? How much of what we hear in the gossip mills is conspiracy theorising by those with fertile imaginations?
We of course all hope for a fruitful outcome, and joe citizen is demanding that the intelligence agencies be given the human and material resources that are needed to get the job done. The Police, the judiciary and the prison systems just cannot be allowed to fail since they collectively stand between us and the comprehensive state failure we all fear is already upon us.
Some or what we have to do would necessarily involve prison reform. A great deal of what is being reported in the media currently about the Solicitor General and abuse in the prisons reminds me of matters which I had previously analysed and written about in the Report on Youth at Risk which I as chairman submitted to Parliament in 2013.That Report dealt inter alia with conditions in the Prisons in general and the overcrowded Remand Yards in particular. The latter breed violence, abuse of prisoners’ rights, misuse of cellphones, gangs use of them in the cells and a great deal more which serves to establish links between criminality inside the prison and gang activity outside its walls.
Let me reproduce some of what was said in the Report by High Court Justice Judith Jones in a judgement which she delivered in 2012 about abuse of prisoner’s rights. As she asked, “how was the situation- (ie, the violent confrontation between Muslim gang elements and prison officials in the prison) allowed to arrive at this critical state? What seemed to be required is preventive action, not aggressive reaction. The evidence in these proceedings brings home the fact that our prison authorities do not have the wherewithal to deal with these incidents”.
Jones noted that the use of excessive force merely served to aggravate a bad situation and “set that time bomb ticking”.
In her mind, the problem not only requires constant psychological assessment and support and adequate training, but requires us to ensure that these officers operate under conditions which allow them to discharge their functions in a manner consistent with the values we hold as a society committed to the rule of law.
“A great deal of physical reconstruction is also called for. Many Latin American countries have had to deal with mass breakouts or arson within the prisons. How long do we have to postpone facing these basic matters?”
What Justice Jones said has been amplified recently by Daniel Khan, the Prisons Inspector, by Justice Frank Seepersad, and also by Senator Timothy Hamel-Smith, President of the Senate.
Seepersad in his ruling observes that “persons who are incarcerated have and continue to be subjected to assault and battery that are unjustified”.
The Senate President likewise warns that “If we allow the murdering of those involved in the criminal justice system to pass without overhauling the system, we are destined to return to the law of the jungle. Indeed, we started on this slippery slope some time ago when witnesses started losing their memories or simply just disappeared.”
Reformers know that the prisons, like some of our schools, are the incubators of much of the crime that is committed in our system.
Much was also said in our Youth at Risk Report about the impact which gangs have on our civic institutions and the seeming imminence of “anarchy”. Here is what was said in that Report about the impact of gang activity on the already declining standards of civil governance: “Not only do gangs pre-empt very scarce material resources that are needed for other social purposes. They also make heavy demands on the limited human resources that states have at their disposal. Particular burdens are imposed on the bureaucracy and the security services which are in the front line on their onslaught. The burdensome presence of gangs also unnerves the society, evaporates confidence, trust, and a willingness to take economic risks, whether short term or long term, and leads to institutional and structural constraints which make it difficult to deliver justice in a timely manner.”
I understand that a bill is soon to be laid in Parliament which seeks to bring into effect a number of changes in the prison rules, some of which have been in place for the past 176 years. Let us centre and fast forward the prison reform agenda as a tribute to Dana Seetahal.