PORT OF SPAIN –– President of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) Ceron Richards is threatening to take the state to court if something is not done soon about deplorable conditions at the Port of Spain Prison.
Richards told the T&T Guardian this may be the only option as the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OSHA) is playing games with the health and safety of prison officers and inmates at the facility.
He said the POA has written several letters to the authority over the years, and has also had several conversations with former chairman Gaekwad Ramoutar, but only received frivolous excuses about why they cannot address the issues.
“There is an OSH board constituted by the Government, paid by the state and they are not functioning. They refused to go into Carrera, MSP and they refusing to go into Port of Spain,” Richards said in a telephone interview, adding it is their view the facility is not fit to be inhabited under current conditions.
Asked if Commissioner Sterling Stewart knew of the situation, Richards said everybody knows but they are playing games.
“I am telling you right now, the Prison Officers’ Association is looking at seeking legal redress for Carrera and we have sought legal redress for remand prison. We have an OSH matter before the court for Golden Grove prison and we will be seeking legal redress for MSP and Tobago prison as well,” he said.
Richards said the Tobago prison is even worse than Port of Spain.
“It is a sight to be seen. You should go and see that prison, it is the worst. Tobago prison is breaking all the OSH laws in T&T.”
The T&T Guardian understands the Food Service Department is a major source of concern. A prison source sent photos showing large rats and cats inhabiting the ration room/diet shed and kitchen where inmates prepare meals daily. The walls and floors are covered with mildew and the drains filled with moss. The source, who provided the photos to support their claims, said this was not the only problem area.
“The prison is filled with vermin. We have had to deal with pigeon mites, cat fleas, flies, roaches and leptospirosis,” the source said, claiming one officer is believed to have died from complications related to leptospirosis two years ago, after allegedly coming into contact with contaminated items, but the matter was covered up.
Prisoners and officers alike are plagued by respiratory conditions, stomach problems and skin conditions believed to be connected to the conditions under which the food is prepared, the source said.
“Officers have to continue to take sick leave for lengthy periods at times because they keep getting sick. This is overbearing now and nobody is doing anything about it. The entire Port of Spain prison needs to be knocked down and built over from scratch,” the source said, noting officers are continually placed in financial difficulty due to the medical bills which are not fully catered to by their medical plan.
The CPO, the source added, visited the prison two years ago and said she could not comprehend how they operate under such conditions. What’s worse, the source claimed, officials from the Port of Spain City Corporation Health Department and Fire Service visit the prison annually to make health and safety checks and still pass the facility.
Asked if Stewart was aware of the situation, the source claimed he does not even visit the prison.
“He [Stewart] is aware of the conditions but he never comes. The only time he was present was when the Attorney General [Faris Al-Rawi] called for the big search in February,” the source said.
“That Port of Spain prison is a reject, only the superintendents and intelligence officers does pass through there.”
The source suggested that only President Anthony Carmona, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, may be able to influence the change needed.
Asked about the complaints raised by the source, Richards said the OSH board does not care about dealing with this serious matter.
“Under the OSH Act of 2004 (amended), all those complaints were made to the OSH board regarding Port of Spain prison and these complaints have been refused. I can show you the many letters the association has written, nobody seems to care. They have constructively refused by virtue of the excuses they continue to give,” he said.
He confirmed the prison was rat infested and said possible health issues which may arise from this were compounded by the fact that there is an inadequate health plan for officers.
“The prison service has no good health insurance for prison officers. All these terms and conditions of employment is what the association intends to treat with going forward in talks with the CPO in the next round of negotiations,” he said.
But he said a good health insurance plan cannot fix problem.
“It is not ideal for Port-of-Spain to remain as is and then we simply treat with it by getting a proper health plan. That should not be the direction going forward,” Richards said.
“The direction going forward is to fix Port of Spain prison and all other divisions that urgently needs fixing, not to look to remedy the condition by providing health insurance. Are we then legitimising the deplorable conditions?”
He said the OSH board of Trinidad and Tobago must do its job.
“They just don’t care, the Government does not care. Nobody cares. Prison is a social reject.
“As the population will say, these men behind bars have committed crimes against society, so why should they live under good conditions.” said Richards.
He reiterated that only the OSH board can determine the fate of the Port of Spain prison.
“The association cannot shut down any prison . . . . We cannot do that. It is the OSH board to determine this and they must do their job.”
Contacted on the issue, head of communications at the prison service Wendell Bompart, who spoke on behalf of Stewart, said steps were being made, with consultation from the Ministry of National Security, to aggressively deal with these conditions. He said it was no secret that the conditions not only at the Port-of-Spain prison but others as well were far below adequate.
“Where the inmates live is also where the officers work. The Commissioner is not happy with the conditions at several divisions and as recent as a couple days ago he has asked for a full report,” Bompart said.
He said Stewart maintains that discussion on prison reform will continue to be defective if there is no criminal justice reform or infrastructural changes.
He, however, dismissed the source’s claim that Stewart does not visit the Port of Spain prison, saying the commissioner is mandated to visit all depots under his jurisdiction and does so as his schedule allows.
Asked about the claims an officer allegedly died as a result of complications from leptospirosis, Bompart said this was absolutely untrue.