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File image of prisoners at the Golden Grove Prison.

Joshua Seemugal

Over the past week, groups of prisoners at the Maximum Security Prison, in Arouca, and the Port-of-Spain Prison, have gone on a hunger strike.

Among the things inmates are said to be calling for are expeditious trials, access to medicine and clothing, lower bail for certain offences, as well as the release of some inmates.

Last Saturday, one of the protesting prisoners, Emo James, fell ill and passed away.

He had been waiting 11 years for a trial.

“It just isn’t justice at any level. And it doesn’t just continue, it’s getting worse. The time (to wait for trials) is getting longer, and then on top of that now, we have guys locked up in cells with the threat of COVID, without the kind of enrichment and skill-based programmes that they need when they get out,” prison reform activist Debbie Jacobs said about prison conditions.

“Where’s the hope?” she asked.

She claimed that in the 10 to 12 years that she’s been visiting prisons, she’s seen the time it typically takes for a case to go to trial doubled from around five years to 10 years.

Saying she believed the amount of time it’s taking for cases to go to trial is inhumane and unacceptable, Jacobs wondered why there isn’t more outcry outside the walls.

“Can we imagine someone sitting in a cell for 11 years, with seven other people, no proper water in the cells or toilet facilities, which would be the case in POS Prison or Remand Yard? How is that we don’t expect things to get worse?” the developer of several prison rehabilitative programmes asked.

Jacobs said while the conditions leave inmates stressed and depressed, the ongoing pandemic has heightened their sense of despair.

COVID-19 has denied prisoners of things the few entitlements they had left, she claimed.

Family visits and special rehabilitation programmes have been suspended, while attempts to incorporate zoom conference calls, as a relief measure, have failed.

“We are going to have to figure out how to increase the very, very little quality of life that they have inside of prison, while they are facing their court cases,” she said.

“But, I think we have to be very careful, I think, not to use COVID as an excuse for everything. It’s time to get more creative, and to figure out how to deal with this backlog of cases,” Jacobs insisted.

For the better part of a decade, Jacobs has taught inmates, seeking to show them the power of education.

However, in the last eight years of teaching, she estimated that only 15 to 20 of her students have had their court cases heard.

Not a single one was convicted of a crime, she added, with them winning their cases, or having them thrown out.

“That number, the 15-20 that I can think of, is unacceptable,” she said while shaking her head repeatedly.

“I had someone who was working for the courts, and he waited almost five years for his case to come up. There was video footage of him at a party at the time he was accused of committing a murder. He waited for five years for it to be dismissed,” Jacobs said in closing.

In 2018, the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs estimated that approximately 59.7 per cent of the country’s prison population was on remand.