President of the Prison Officers Association Ceron Richards is calling on Justice Minister Emmanuel George to leave what he describes as politicking out of prison affairs and instead address the safety concerns of his membership.
Speaking with the Sunday Express on Friday, one day after George addressed the media at a post-Cabinet briefing in Port of Spain, Richards challenged the minister to present evidence of his statements.
“The minister is playing a lot of politics in the way he is presenting information to the public.
In other words, he’s presenting a scenario where there’s no reason for the officers to complain since his ministry has done all they can to appease the officers’ concerns about security,” Richards said.
On Thursday, George outlined ten “actions taken in the interest of prison officers” by his ministry. Among them were safe houses for officers provided by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), the distribution of stabproof and bulletproof vests, the amendment of the Prisons Act, officers being successful in the granting of Firearm Users Licences (FULs), installation of cellphone jammers and upgrades at the nation’s prisons.
George said based on the achievements, he saw no need for officers to engage in illegal industrial action which he said is being sanctioned by Richards.
The minister said there was no truth to claims made by Richards that none of the recommendations from the report of the Special Prisons Committee, chaired by Prof Ramesh Deosaran, have been implemented and their safety and security on and off duty was not being attended to.
But Richards countered by stating the bullet and stabproof vests, though delivered, were still sitting in a warehouse awaiting distribution.
“That is totally untrue; not one (stab and bulletproof vest) has been distributed and been received. These vests were for drivers and those under immediate threat. The minister continuously gives the public misinformation,” he said.
Adding it was also irresponsible of the minister to place in the public domain that 80 per cent of officers have received FULs, Richards said: “Eighty per cent of what? Of five officers. Those who face immediate threats are not armed. These FULs are given to senior officers and not those who are in close contact with the prison population. The minister is playing with figures.”
On the issue of the HDC allocating homes to at-risk officers, Richards said his Association is yet to see any agreement reflecting this.
“We are aware that officers are under serious threats and they haven’t been given housing. Officers are threatened on a daily basis and are yet to receive homes. Yet the minister is saying this occurred. He has to prove this to us,” Richards said.
He also questioned the Prisons Act, which George claimed was amended for more serious penalties for physical assault of prison officers.
George had told the media there was an increase from $1,000 or imprisonment for six months to $10,000 and imprisonment for two years.
Again, Richards called for evidence of this.
“The minister will have to show us the evidence of this. We checked with the Parliament website and other legal resources and we only saw changes taking place in 2003, 2008 and 2010. He needs to let us know what year this was done because we can’t find it.
As far as we are concerned until proof is provided that’s untrue.”
Richards emphasised while the minister was making inaccurate statements, prison officers continued to suffer under deplorable conditions.
He noted steps were currently being taken for the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OSHA) to inspect the prisons.
Describing the Port of Spain prison as inhumane and one that could collapse at any time, Richards said the facility was over a century old and was a hazard to officers and prison inmates.
“Safety and security is an everyday concern and we have been writing on behalf of our membership to the Commissioner of Prisons and also the minister but nothing is being done and officers are fed up and may well take matters into their own hands without the Association knowing,” Richards said.