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Giving prisoners a chance

Published: 
Thursday, February 3, 2011

Very positively, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar initiated a programme on Monday night ostensibly designed to assist with the re-entry of prisoners into society when they leave the prisons.
As outlined, the Government will offer a 200 per cent tax credit to businesses which hire ex-prisoners; it will ensure that such people get jobs in public works programmes, and they would receive assistance for housing accommodation for a settling-in period, especially for those who have been in prison for many years and have little support outside. Perhaps what would be most attractive to the average prisoner walking out of jail would be the promised $5,000 grant by the State. Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar was savvy enough to indicate that there will be conditions to prisoners receiving the grant. “It will not be that the criminals will say I just have to go in prison and spend some time and then get $5,000. No, we will make checks and balances,” said the Prime Minister.

But even more potentially productive than the grant is the proposal to have commodities produced by the prisoners when in jail sold on the open market. Among those to benefit from the proceeds would be the victims of crime, the families of the inmates, and with 20 per cent of the sale reserved for the prisoner who has produced the commodities. We say the latter proposal is potentially most beneficial because of a few factors: It means that prisoners will have to be consistently engaged in productive activity while in jail; there will be a recognition of the value of his/her work, and also because the prisoner could come to understand the suffering of victims of crime as he/she contributes to their welfare. As this editorial says, the proposals are the first steps in the initiation of a good set of programmes which could contribute greatly to the reduction of recidivism, encouraging offenders to turn from their non-productive and harmful ways by not returning to crime and the inevitable jail sentence.

But these are merely a few ideas thrown out by the Prime Minister, perhaps stimulated by her need for some good press after a few weeks of hammering for the unforgivable error of engulfing the appointment of someone to head the national security institution in partisan politics. The measure of the seriousness of the proposals can easily be judged by what the Government will be prepared to do to make realisable those proposals. There are a number of basic requirements: Transform and modernise the physical environment of the prisons—prisoners cannot be productive if they have to spend their downtime in a filthy cell, unfit for human habitation, with ten other men/women with a slop pail. Such conditions only encourage brutalisation of the weaker ones and the harbouring of the intention to seek violent retribution against the society seen as being responsible for their suffering inside the jails.  

We know that there exists a programme of reform and rehabilitation within the prison system, but it surely is in need of resources of all kinds to be fully beneficial to those who come into the system. Moreover, such a programme needs to be placed at the centre of the prison system to transform the system of brutal punishment and the hatching of further criminal activity from the agenda of prisoners. It is only when the reform and rehabilitation work inside the prisons becomes operational would the society outside feel confident to welcome back the returning prisoners, assured that such people now have a different view of life and productive existence. Prime Minister, you now have the opportunity to demonstrate that your speech was not mere public relations.