Protestors and Prison Visiting Committee join forces

By Elesha George

A meeting between the Prison Visiting Committee and a group of protestors has been recognised as the first ever such gathering between prison stakeholders within the state.

On Thursday, October 17th, 2019, the six-member committee sat down with Jessica Thompson, the organiser of the recent prison protests, to document the group’s concerns about the squalid living conditions at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP), also referred to as 1735.

Chief among the documented concerns were poor ventilation, particularly in the women’s remand section and the maximum prison block; the absence of medical practitioners at night; the consent to marry inmates while in prison; substandard bathroom facilities; insufficient drinking water; communication with the outside; overcrowding of cells; and how mental illness is diagnosed and treated at the facility.

Chairman of the Prison Visiting Committee, Bishop Charlesworth Browne was quick to defend the committee’s position, telling the group of concerned citizens that they all “share the same concerns”.   Bishop Browne said for years, the committee has been petitioning for a number of issues to be remedied, but has done so, for the most part, unsuccessfully.

He said as early as Monday, October, 14th, 2019, he met with a number of Justices of the Peace, including Justice Keith Thom, to whom he put forward a recommendation to have all the prisoners relocated to the former United States Army Air Base in Coolidge. 

That base now serves as a holding cell for convicted British prisoner and ex-Scotland yard police, Lee Martin-Cramp, after a British judge ruled to have the man extradited on condition that he be housed elsewhere than the 18th century HMP, due to its deplorable condition and the inhumane environment that inmates are forced to live in.

The ruling had been hailed as a first for the territories of the West Indies. Inmates and citizens have contended in the past, stating that all prisoners should be housed at the same place and, at the very least, Martin-Cramp should be made to reside with the other prisoners at 1735.

In a clear indication of the state of the country’s lone prison facility, the Bishop said, “there are times when we go in there with fear and trembling”. Browne added that some of the government officials who have dared to tour the prison, have refused to return, after witnessing its harsh surroundings firsthand.

Frustration, he shared, has led other committee members to resign, claiming that nothing was being changed, even with their best efforts.

The group, which is responsible for prisoners’ welfare said its members have tried their best to ensure small mercies are met at the prison, but it’s still not enough to ease the burden that prison officers and inmates alike are required to operate in.

Health officials, the Bishop said, have admitted that the building should be abandoned but the question before the authorities is, where they will house more than 300 prisoners. Promises to build a new state facility have become mundane. It is for that reason that the protestors say they will not retreat from their picketing.

The minutes of Thursday’s meeting are expected to be circulated to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs, Public Safety and Labour, Attorney General Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin’, Governor General, His Excellency Sir Rodney Williams and the Superintendent of Prisons, Lieutenant Eugene Phillip.