Missing prison officer believed found dead in Barrackpore forest

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Undertakers remove the body found in a teak forest off of Cumuto Trace North, Barrackpore which is believed to be that of prison officer Alexander Johnson who went missing in January – Rishard Khan

A burnt, decomposing body found hanging from a tree in a teak forest off of Cumuto Trace North, Barrackpore, is believed to be that of prison officer Alexander Johnson who went missing on January 17.

However, with relatives also believing he died by suicide, the Prison Officers Association head does not believe enough is done to look after officers’ mental health.

At the scene, relative Anastasha Thomas told Newsday the family, who lives nearby, was alerted about the body on Saturday evening by a group of hunters who stumbled upon it.

Anastasha Thomas –

Johnson, 35, was attached to the Eastern Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre (ECRC) in Santa Rosa for the last five years. He was last seen leaving his home on January 17 to perform errands before going to work wearing a brown t-shirt and black pants.

He was reported missing when he never showed up for work and calls to his phone went unanswered.

Thomas said the family went in search on Sunday morning and discovered the body.

While it was disfigured, she said relatives believed it was Johnson’s.

Thomas said the clothes found at the scene resembled the ones he was last seen wearing and some of his distinguishing facial features were still recognisable.

She said they believed Johnson died by suicide.

Affian Charles-Johnson, centre, sitting, wife of missing prison officer Alexander Johnson, is consoled by Harley Hewmane of Sham’s Hunters Search and Rescue Team at their Barrackpore home as her children, Isaiah, left, and Atiliyah, look on. Alexander’s decomposing body was found in a teak forest off of Cumuto Road, Barrackpore, earlier Sunday. – AYANNA KINSALE

“He did complain about stress you know. Not everybody out here could handle stress. We would like to believe it’s stress but we can’t tell because a dead man tells no tales.”

“He had (stress) home and on work because he complained about stress on work. Persons who he does work with said the work was getting real stressful and thing and then he had a lot of stress at home.”

Commander of Sham’s Hunters Search and Rescue Team Shamshudeen Ayube said they were assisting in search efforts since Johnson went missing in January.

Shamshudeen Ayube –

Ayube believes Johnson intentionally evaded their early efforts to find him.

Ayube said members spotted Johnson in January and he ran from them. He said they even conducted searches in the area where the body was found, which at the time, was covered in tall grass.

Ayube said there were signs of a recent bush fire which cleared the bush, revealing the body and, unfortunately, appeared to have scorched it.

Ayube lamented that, despite his team’s efforts, they weren’t able to recover him alive.

Head of the Prison Officers’ Association Gerard Gordon extended condolences to Johnson’s family. However, he said Johnson’s was not a unique situation, noting last year’s incident in which prison officer Shivon Childs, 29, shot himself in the head in August.

“The issues surrounding stress, mental health and overall wellness of prison officers is one that is generally ignored.

“Few people understand that the work and the environment in which prison officers function is extremely, not just challenging, but I dare say alien environment.

“One that is unnatural in its arrangement, and we have a number of officers that continue to operate in the environment while they are afflicted with all of the fallout of operating in a high-stress environment.”

Gordon said prison officers don’t have a functioning, well-established employee-assistance programme.

Gerard Gordon –

“In fact, it was something that they used to have external providers providing counselling services and whatnot, and all of that was stopped because somebody thought it was spending too much money.

“I think, more than any other time in our history, prison officers require a special type of attention and focus so that we don’t have these issues continuing unchecked.”

Gordon said any prison officers who may experience challenges with their mental health should reach out to the association for assistance.

He said the executive would meet this week and explore additional avenues to help officers whose mental health was being impacted by the job.

Prison officers are not the only law-enforcement personnel who have died by suicide in the last year.

Last July, an Inter-Agency Task Force constable Shiva Hosein was found dead in his Princes Town home by his 65-year-old mother. In September, WPC Josette Marshall shot and killed her common-law husband, Dwight Skeete, before turning the gun on herself amidst domestic issues.

Prisons Commissioner Deopersad Ramoutar declined to comment directly on the body’s discovery until police confirmed that it was Johnson through an autopsy.

Deopersad Ramoutar –

However, he took aim at Gordon’s implication that officers were not able to receive mental-health support from the service.

Ramoutar confirmed the external employee assistance programme was discontinued owing to financial constraints last year, however, internal personnel took over.

“We are providing that (EAP) internally. Maybe four to five months ago the prison service would have employed five psychologists, leaving us a total of six psychologists to attend to staff needs,” Ramoutar told Newsday.

“I agree that we may not be up to world-class standards and I take that if that’s a criticism, yes. But we are better off than many state agencies.”

Ramoutar lamented that the prison service’s free facilities for physical and mental health were undersubscribed. He believed that might be owing to the stigma associated with mental health.

“If we were to cast blame…we have to cast blame on ourselves,” Ramoutar said.

“We, as colleagues, are not looking to help our brother- or sister-officer. So we would see them experiencing problems and we take it for granted. We leave them alone. And when they do something drastic, we pretend as though we were there for them.

“A person who is experiencing mental issues because of depression, they are not fully capable of asking for help so we have to go out there and give them that help.”

To access the psychological service, the commissioner said officers just needed to inform their supervisor.

Those contemplating suicide can also call toll-free 800-5588, 866-5433 or 220-3636.