It had been a gruelling week for Prison Officer Devendra Boodooram.
The Port-of-Spain State Prison, where he worked, was on lockdown after his colleagues were captured on cellphone video beating inmates who were lying on the concrete floor, their hands restrained by zip ties.
Three days after clashes between inmates and guards, Boodooram welcomed an invitation from his colleagues to join them at the Ladies Night Out Carnival Fete at the Jean Pierre Complex, Mucurapo.
Boodooram loved Carnival and could hardly refuse a free ticket. After completing his shift and changing into civilian clothes, Boodooram jumped into his silver Honda CRV, joining the creeping mid-afternoon traffic on Frederick Street. He hated traffic and would often curse it under his breath. He would have preferred to be on his motorbike.
He called his wife Asha, to let her know that he wanted to cancel the family’s Friday evening pizza and mall excursion.
She approved but ended the conversation abruptly. The only thing Asha disliked more than his love for motorbikes was him talking on the phone while driving. In her haste, Asha had forgotten to say “I love you,” as she had done at the end of every telephone conversation during their 23-year relationship.
As Boodooram’s Honda inched forward on Frederick Street, a man wearing short pants and a long-sleeved grey T-shirt walked up to his window. He fired a volley of shots, hitting his target once in his head, once in his neck and twice in his chest. Boodooram, a 25-year veteran of the Prison Service, died almost instantly. His attacker ran against oncoming traffic on Frederick Street and up a side street in the direction of east Port-of-Spain.
When he was slain on January 26, 2018, Boodooram was the third prison officer to be killed in four months. In the last two decades, some 19 prison officers have been murdered in hits called in from behind prison walls. Many of the killings were reprisals from inmates who used their fellow gang members outside to conduct the attacks.
Just last week, prison authorities placed the entire service on high alert after receiving death threats against two senior officers.
Many of the slain prison guards had no connection to inmates’ grievances. But their killings were used to send warnings to prison guards that they could be harmed for merely enforcing prison rules, such as restrictions on cigarettes, cellphones and narcotics.
A Guardian Media investigation found that:
* The 19 prison officers killed in the last two decades make the prison service the most dangerous law enforcement job in the country. During the same period, a similar number of police officers were killed in the line of duty. There are about 3,000 prison officers compared to the 6,500-strong police force.
* The majority of those killed were assigned to Remand Yard at the Golden Grove Prison in Arouca, dubbed by inmates as Guantanamo Bay because of its filthy conditions and rampant overcrowding.
* Almost all of the prison officers slain were attacked at their homes. Five of the killings took place outside officers’ homes in Laventille, infamous for having one of the highest murder rates in the world.
* All but two were low-ranking prison officers. They include fresh recruits and veteran officers counting down the months until retirement.
* Almost all, but two, were killed by armed gunmen.
Boodooram was not on duty during the clashes that preceded his death. He had very little interaction with remand inmates, as he worked in the construction department, making minor repairs to the 207-year-old prison, commonly known as Royal Gaol.
Like Boodooram, many of the slain officers were killed after clashes between inmates and guards in the remand sections of the prisons.
Superintendent Wayne Jackson, who was in charge of the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) in Arouca—considered the most modern lockup in the country—was the second to last prison officer to be slain when he was shot outside his home in Malabar on October 2 last year. Jackson’s murder came shortly after the Prison Service dismantled its popular Futsal competition for inmates after some of the prisoners’ guests were caught smuggling contraband items into the system.
Jackson was the second senior MSP officer to be killed in less than three years. On November 2, 2015, Superintendent David Millette was shot dead outside his Morvant home as he was getting ready to leave for work.
There is little doubt that some prison guards abuse their authority and use excessive force on inmates. Many such incidents have resulted in riots and in civil litigation that has ended in lucrative payouts for inmates.
Their colleagues—and even some inmates—considered Boodooram, Jackson and Millette upstanding officers. Outgoing Prisons Commissioner Gerard Wilson said in his 35-year service he has observed that decorated officers were the ones targeted-not those suspected of enabling inmates with illegal activities.
“They kill the ones we love,” Wilson said.
In T&T, if you kill someone, the chances are slim that you would be caught or would pay a price for taking that person’s life. In the last three years, the country has averaged 491 murders, making it one of the most dangerous places in the region. On average, only 16 per cent of these killings have been solved by police, according to statistics from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service. And only a fraction of the murders detected result in convictions.
Prison guards are killed with impunity because of the apparent lack of consequences for their killers or those who call in the hits. Police have solved only a few of the cases involving the 19 slain prison officers. Among them were Boodooram’s and Millette’s, whose attackers are now in remand.
Andre Nicholas Lavia, a 24-year-old from east Port-of-Spain who is also known as “Wetman Andre,” was charged with Boodooram’s murder. He is currently in custody at Port-of-Spain State Prison, the same lockup where Boodooram worked.
Shawn “Devil” Coa, who is accused of murdering Millette, is being held at the same facility. Coa, who was Millette’s neighbour in Morvant, was committed in August 2017, to stand trial, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Although both men are alleged to have committed the murders, no one was charged for orchestrating the attacks, which more than likely emanated from within the prisons.
Unlike police officers, prison guards are often considered “soft targets” because their authority is confined to prison facilities. There is no fear among inmates that fellow prison officers would seek retribution for fallen comrades.
Prisons Commissioner Wilson and his top officers have said the country’s dysfunctional criminal justice system has exacerbated problems within lockups. Prisoners have to wait inordinately long periods in cramped conditions before their cases are resolved.
And overcrowding has turned prison facilities into cauldrons of frustration and anger. The situation is most glaring at Remand Yard at the Golden Grove in Arouca. The facility is a converted World War II cinema which was used by Canadian soldiers.
Although it is reconfigured for a maximum of 600 inmates, its average number of occupants hovers around 1,000. This means that prison officers are forced to cram between six to nine prisoners—confined for almost 23 hours a day—in 10 by 10 cells meant to hold four people. The four strongest prisoners claim the two bunk beds. The others are forced to sleep on pieces of discarded carpet.
Authorities have begun installing toilets in each cell but for now, inmates are forced to relieve themselves in recycled paint buckets. The sweltering concrete facility lacks proper ventilation. The stench of urine and faeces, intensified by body odour and smoke from cigarettes and marijuana, is only lightly masked by industrial disinfectant.
Limited space in Remand has handicapped prison officials’ ability to segregate members of the country’s gangs—namely Rasta City and the Muslim Gang—who seek to operate their criminal enterprises from behind prison walls.
Some officers are bribed into allowing prisoners to procure contraband, the most common of which are cellphones, cigarettes, and narcotics.
Officers who crack down on illicit activities are often reminded that they could pay the ultimate price: death.
A Family’s Unending Grief
Some 19 months later, Boodooram’s presence is still felt inside the family’s cosy peach house, a single-storey brick structure built alongside his parents’ home in Lopinot.
The living room is a memorial to the slain prison officer’s life. An enlarged photograph signed by dozens of his colleagues hangs on the wall. His polished boots and officer’s hat have been placed in a neat pile on a corner of their dining table, right next to wedding and graduation photos.
His widow, Asha, described how the family has struggled to cope with Boodooram’s loss. Asha said she and her two daughters, Tisha and Nasya, understood the risks of Boodooram’s job. They never feared that he would be targeted because he exuded a certain calm.
“My husband used to always say that if there was a riot in the jail he would come out alive because of the type of person he was,” she said, citing his penchant for cracking jokes.
“The prisoners might save him before they try to save themselves because of how he treated (them).”
Asha said the only time she could recall Boodooram complaining about work was a year before his murder, after supervising a search of inmate cells for contraband. Prison officers “were there for the whole day and they only got a bottle of water and people threw urine on them,” she said.
Asha and Boodooram met while he was working with his brother, a contractor on a primary school in Matura, where Asha lived. Boodooram had seen Asha while travelling to work and, for him, it was love at first sight. The feeling was not mutual.
“That little skinny black boy want me? He working on the construction site and want me?” Asha said, as she chuckled about the response to a neighbour who told her that Boodooram enquired about her.
Later, the two met at a wake for Asha’s other neighbour, a motorcycle enthusiast. Asha said after much persistence from Boodooram, she relented.
Boodooram had aspired to become a pilot. But shortly after their marriage, Boodooram scored the job as a prison officer.
“It was just a form of stability so that when the month comes you get a salary. It gives you a sense of security,” she said.
Boodooram’s older daughter, Tisha, an Open Scholarship winner currently studying bio-medical engineering, was in her class at Florida International University when she received the call that her father had been murdered.
Tisha speaks proudly of attending Form Six at her father’s secondary school, Hillview College. She often breaks down over the loss of Boodooram.
“The gap that he left is huge,” she said. “He held such a large place in our hearts.”
Nasya was noticeably silent throughout the interview. Her mother and older sister both described her as the “apple of his eye.” Nasya and Boodooram formed a close bond from the moment she was born. He had taken paternity leave to care for her.
“I used to always tell him that if he couldn’t be sure that anyone loves him in the world, he could be sure with that one,” Asha said, pointing to Nasya.
“I would honestly say she is the strongest among us,” Tisha said.
Asha said Boodooram’s killing was senseless. “They say they sending a message,” she said, about the people who called the hit on her husband. “Who you send the message to? It did not make prisoners’ lives better, it did not make the lives of prison officers better, nobody in prison would miss him except for his family. Who you send that message to? He is just another name who die and gone?”
Asha said Boodooram’s death would be more bearable if it brought about change. However, she said she was not confident that the criminal justice system would deliver justice.
She said: “How long would it take for a trial? Even if there is a trial, would anybody be convicted?”
Asha and Tisha wrapped their arms around each other in a tearful embrace.