Brawl prompts prison reform calls: ‘Let us hire our own’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Port of Spain prison. File photo/ Sureash Cholai

A brawl at the Port of Spain prison on Tuesday left prison officers and prisoners hospitalized and revealed a major understaffing issue within the Prison Service.

This has prompted calls by the acting Prisons Commissioner and the head of the Prison Officers’ Association for changes in the service’s recruitment policy.

Senior prison officials said the brawl stemmed from a dispute between a prisoner and a prison officer who was escorting him to his cell at around 10:15 am on Tuesday when the inmate refused to obey instructions to return to his cell.

Acting Prisons Commissioner Deopersad Ramoutar said the prisoner became violent and uncontrollable, resulting in the officer being assaulted.

The officer tried to defend himself but other inmates, riled up by the fight, also jumped into the fray.

Ramoutar said officers were required to use “a level of force” to return the inmates to their cells. The fracas left both officers and inmates with injuries but none were life-threatening.

Some of the injured received medical attention at the prison infirmary while several others were taken to hospital. The incident is being investigated by the prison service and police.

Ramoutar said five prison officers and six prisoners were injured. But Prison Officers’ Association president Gerard Gordon said 17 prison officers and four prisoners were injured. Ramoutar could not confirm or deny Gordon’s statement when asked by Newsday.

Gordon also said that describing the incident as a brawl was incorrect. “It’s not a brawl and it’s not an altercation. Once you have people who are incarcerated and something like that happens, it’s a riot… They assaulted the officer, which led to this whole thing getting out of hand. So it’s not a brawl. If we live in the free world, is a brawl.”

He said those injured during the “riot” had to be taken to the hospital.

While the incident lasted just ten minutes, Gordon said it has shed light on a years-long problem of understaffing in the service.

Deopersad Ramoutar –

Ramoutar commended the officers and said situations like those “are all in a day’s work” for prison officers, who he described as “undervalued and unappreciated.”

Gordon said understaffed should also be added to this description and suggested the number of prison officers injured was partly a result of the staff shortage facing the service.

“Remember, it’s not four against 17. The prison population is over 500 and down in that particular division, you’re looking at a couple hundred people. “The officers would have come to the aid of the officer who was assaulted and they would have then retreated because they are outnumbered, literally.” He said the prison environment does not lend to officers being able to “manage the numbers in the way that it should be.”

He said while a riot is nothing strange, it is concerning and something that he believes was foretold.

“That Port of Spain prison is on the brink of having something happen there, and that is simply because of the layout. “It’s outdated, it’s overcrowded, notwithstanding the fact that the numbers there are much less than it would have been possibly ten years ago. But it was never constructed to hold that number of people. “In fact, I think the number is around 250 if I’m not mistaken. And now it’s over 500.”

Ramoutar did not want to disclose the staffing arrangements at the area where the riot occurred but agreed the service was understaffed.

“Well, of course. Of course, we are understaffed.”

Gordon said the staffing issue stems from the current recruitment process being run by the Public Service Commission instead of the Prison Service.

He said the use of the commission creates a bureaucratic hurdle and slows the process.

“The prison does not have its own commission. So we rely on the Public Service Commission, and because we rely on the Public Service Commission, we are not in total control of all of the processes. “So when you talk about holding and hosting exams, correcting those papers, all those things lie squarely on the shoulders of the Public Service Commission, who has overarching responsibility for the entire public service.”

He said because of this, recruitment for the Prison Service is “very long and unnecessarily protracted.”

Prisons Officers’ Associationpresident Gerard Gordon

Gordon compared the police recruitment drive last month to the Prison Service recruitment drive last year.

He said that the Prison Service recruitment drive in 2023 led to over 11,000 valid applications.

Police received approximately 10,000 applications in February and applicants have already reached the examination stage, while the Public Service Commission has still not announced plans for the Prison Service exam.

“The Police Service is in total control of their recruitment process. So that is why they can have a recruitment drive and have people then write exams and be interviewed and all these sorts of things. The turnaround time is quick.”

He added, “I am not confident, based on what traditionally happens with recruitment, that we are going to see a batch in before the end of the year.”

Ramoutar said, “We had to process every one of them and do our checks and balances and then send it to the service commission. That takes some time. “It is in the service commission, the examination section, they had to do their thing, set the exam and so on.”

He said only 750 applicants may be selected depending on how long the recruitment process takes.

“Only 250 people will be recruited in the first batch (and) I would say there will be about three batches. It depends on how long we take because the list is not usually considered valid after four or five years.”

Gordon said the establishment of a Prison Service Commission to speed up the process is something he has always called for.

“Based on the importance of the prison service to the entire criminal justice system, to me, it was a no-brainer that we have our own commission. “It will only imbue into the organization a certain level of efficiency that is sorely lacking currently.”

Asked if he agreed with Gordon’s call to establish a Prison Service Commission, Ramoutar said, “Yes, that would help.”

As the recruitment process drags on, Gordon said there is no hope regarding a short-term solution.

Asked about the possibility of addressing the shortfall by supplementing prison security with police officers, Gordon said that was unlikely to happen.

“It wouldn’t be in the best interest of a lot of people to have police supplements. In fact, I’ll even go a step further and say the police too are challenged with staffing. “So as an organization, I wouldn’t want to even attempt to or want to suggest that.”