What to do about our prison security system

Given President David Granger’s own forthright expressions of concern over issues of public security he is unlikely to give the prevailing prison security regime anything above a dismal report card. The President would concede, we think, that over the three plus years of his own administration the prison security system has simply slipped further into decline even though it has to be said that the events of recent years had been hatched in the festering failure of preceding administrations to try to fix the problems. What else can we conclude from a system that veers wildly from the frightening phenomenon of prison violence, jailbreaks and arson to happenings like the recent, more comical Mother’s Day ‘event’ at the New Amsterdam Prison.

If the many preceding years of ineptitude and inaction that had characterized the running of our prison system are anything to go by, any argument to the effect that last July’s near complete destruction of the Georgetown Prison, the killing of a Prison Officer and the escape of a number of inmates therefrom came as anything even remotely surprising would be an exercise in the most bare-faced hypocrisy. What happened was the outcome of the unfathomable and historic official indifference to the warning signs that had stacked up over the years and to which you can respond by either working diligently to devise remedies or else, to allow to grow worse, through a ‘policy’ of benign indifference, waiting for accidents, disasters in our instance, to happen. We choose the latter option and it has to be said that we have arrived at that juncture towards which we had worked for many years.

 One of the characteristics of the behaviour of successive political administrations has been their propensity to proffer remedial measures only after the problem has degenerated into a condition of complete disrepair only to have those evaporate in a problem-solving system driven by little more than a counterproductive fire-fighting approach.  It has been   that way with officialdom and our prison system. The emergence of a new problem tends to result in the abandonment of any real focus on remedying the previous problem. One can think of other issues to which this approach applies with equal validity.

 Various informed opinions on the successive upheavals at the Georgetown jail have, almost unanimously, attributed those to an absence of uncompromisingly professional management including a chronic absence of official timeliness in moving to remedy specific institutional loopholes, whether these be in the area of violence against inmates, general prisons conditions, bullying or internal gang rivalry. What is underscored here is the reality that governments have always been far more adept at (and seemingly more amenable to) debating issues ‘to death’ rather than channeling their intellectual exertions in the direction of seeking remedies. It has been precisely that way with our protracted prison crisis.

After last July’s fire and prison break the eroding prison security situation has been  manifested chiefly in the frequent inmate flare-ups notably at Lusignan, which facility has now been pressed into service beyond that which it is reasonably equipped to provide. It seems, as well, that each prison incident appears to open up new fissures in the wider prison security system that allow for what now appears to be an increase in the remarkable two-way flow of illegal communication between inmates of our prisons and the outside world.  

 There is nothing but national embarrassment to be derived from any objective inquiry into a prison security system that reveals the humiliating truth about Prison Warders being pressed into service as common ‘bag men’ shamelessly servicing the needs of prison inmates for weapons, drugs, cell phones and creature comforts of one sort of another. In that context the less said about the recent Mother’s Day soiree at the New Amsterdam Prison and the cluelessness of the authorities as to how the event came to be serviced with high-priced alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, the better. What should be said, however, is that the New Amsterdam Mother’s Day ‘do’ came perilously close to matching the near flattening of the Georgetown jail as a symbol of official loss of control of our prison system.

 Setting aside the fact that our overall prison infrastructure has simply been outgrown, in more ways than one, by the evolving penal needs of our society, we must endure, as well, the betrayal of some of those whose task it is to protect the system, but whom, instead, have opted to embrace the quagmire of corruption into which prison security would appear to be sinking fast. The challenge in this particular regard goes beyond simply throwing material resources behind the broader physical enhancement of the prison infrastructure. It requires, as well, more measured value judgements in the process of creating a selection and subsequent training process which, hopefully, can create greater numbers of prison officers with a sense of the mission required to get the job done.   

The bottom line, of course, is the need for an enhanced sense of official will to improve our prison security system by turning public discourses and Commissions of Inquiry into the structured implementation of well thought out plans to turn things around, bearing in mind, of course, that resource limitations place restraints on the speed with which things can happen. This notwithstanding, what we need is sustained and evidence-driven official reassurance that the gaping holes in our prison security system are being plugged. That reassurance has simply not been forthcoming.

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