In less than a week, there have been chilling reminders that this country’s prison system is a powder keg that is threatening to blow apart T&T’s entire national security infrastructure.
The murders of prison officers Trevor Serrette and Nigel Jones, followed by the gun attack at the home of a male officer on Tuesday night, have brought back into sharp focus a dangerous situation that has been simmering for years with violent eruptions from time to time.
There is an explosive situation behind prison walls, where overcrowding, increasingly dangerous inmates, primitive facilities and the trafficking and smuggling facilitated by corrupt officers, are a toxic mix the authorities have been struggling for years to bring under control.
Not for the first time, the Prison Officers' Association (POA), led by their outspoken president Ceron Richards, is demanding immediate action. They are now seeking a meeting with Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, in his position as head of the National Security Council, to discuss the latest killings of their colleagues and threats to the lives of other members.
While their demands for better protection should be heeded, there is an even more urgent issue that needs to be addressed—the complicity of prison officers who ensure dangerous inmates have easy access to cell phones, chargers and other contraband to carry on their criminal enterprises from behind bars.
Corrupt interactions between prisoners and prison officers have rendered almost useless the millions of dollars in electronic security measures implemented in efforts to stem illicit inflows and communications. In fact, such efforts have been reduced to exercises in futility.
Following a deadly and short-lived escape by four remand prisoners from the Port-of-Spain Prison in July 2015, which ended in the deaths of a police officer and two of the escapees, CCTV cameras and full-body scanners were installed at the Golden Grove, Port-of-Spain, Remand and Maximum-Security Prisons.
However, those upgrades to surveillance technology, combined with the grabbers and jammers procured to stop unauthorised phone calls by inmates, are being shortcircuited by criminally-aligned officers. They have given the advantage to high-risk prisoners who much too easily, right from their prison cells, order hits on prison officers and others they regard as threats to their underworld enterprises.
Incarcerated gang leaders are getting more brazen and are now sending death threats and compiling hit lists, trying to use murder as a bargaining tool.
Heaven help us all if they get their way!
Yet, conversations about all the ills in T&T’s prisons barely ever touch on the rampant corruption or complicity with the criminal underworld by officers throughout the prison system.
Blood is on the hands of all the officers who have aligned with the criminals. They are to blame for the slaughter of their colleagues as much as the hitmen dispatched by jailed gang leaders who have, in just the past few days, left two families in mourning and severely traumatised a three-year-old girl.
There are many ills within the prison system that need to be addressed. However, to end the bloodshed, the authorities must deal swiftly and severely with rogue prison officers.
That too should be given the highest priority.