Derek Achong

A group of over 500 remand prisoners has sued the State over its alleged failure to implement sufficient measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s prison.

The prisoners, who are part of activist group Justice Seekers Association, filed the class-action suit in the name of five of its members-Dexter Simon, Timothy Mohammed, Lawrence Diaz, Kevin Patrick and Miguel Esis.

Guardian Media understands that the case came up for virtual hearing before Justice Robin Mohammed last Friday.

During the hearing, Justice Mohammed set deadlines for the filing of evidence in the case and adjourned it to July 28.

The State’s legal team, led by Senior Counsel Fyard Hosein, did not initially object to the five prisoners representing the other members of the group.

The prisoners’ complaints were first highlighted in a series of pre-action protocol letters sent to the Attorney General’s Office, acting Prisons Commissioner Dennis Pulchan, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, and National Security Minister Stuart Young in mid-April, which were obtained by Guardian Media.

In the letter sent to Pulchan on April 16, the prisoners’ legal team sought to challenge his alleged failure to implement social distancing and cleanliness protocols at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca.

They also contend that he (Pulchan) failed to comply with 1943 Prison Rules regarding actions required in a pandemic such as COVID-19.

They claimed that the breaches infringed their constitutional rights to life and health.

In the letter, the attorneys claimed that the facility is plagued by a perennial water supply problem.

“As per our instructions, our clients were only provided with half of a blue soap and half of a red soap for each cell, which is expected to last a month, attorney Antonya Pierre said, as she claimed that social distancing is impossible at the facility and at Remand Yard at the Golden Grove State Prison.

In the letter to Deyalsingh, they claimed that their clients’ constitutional right to equality of treatment by a public authority was breached as the public health regulations implemented for the pandemic did not apply to them.

They pointed out that the World Health Organisation’s standards and declarations state that prisoners should be afforded the same preventative measures as citizens that are not incarcerated.

“As it stands, the current set-up of the prison is apt for the easy spread of the infection among the population should one prison officer be a carrier of same as we are instructed there are no proper or stringent measures for the interaction of the prisoners with the officers,” Pierre said.

In response to the letter to Pulchan, the Office of the Attorney General denied the prisoners’ claims over breaches of their constitutional rights.

It claimed that Pulchan implemented a series of measures including screening before entry, virtual visits, and increased cleaning.

The AG’s Office also noted that it worked with Pulchan and several other State officials to help facilitate the release of over 300 non-violent inmates to reduce overcrowding. It noted that 121 had secured their freedom through variation of their bail as of April 27.

“We want to assure you that the prison administration remains sensitive to the health and welfare requirements of all prisoners. Furthermore, the prison administration continues to innovate to improve the quality of life of the prison population particularly so having regard to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” attorney Hillary Muddeen of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor said.

Questioned about the lawsuit during a press conference at his office yesterday afternoon, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi stated that the case was rendered almost academic based on the steps taken by his ministry and by extension the Government to help reduce overcrowding in prison during the pandemic.

Al Rawi claimed that most of the remand prisoners, who were identified in a lawsuit filed by his ministry, had already secured their freedom through bail variations.

He said inmates convicted of minor crimes with less than a year left on their sentences being considered for presidential pardon by the Mercy Committee once it begins receiving welfare officers’ reports on the individual prisoners.

“They are moving ahead steadily,” Al Rawi said.

The prisoners are also being represented by Farai Hove-Masaisai, Anthony Egbert and Sallian Holdip-Francis.