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Prison Commissioner Dennis Pulchan

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Lawyers representing a group of prisoners being housed at the controversial Wayne Jackson Building at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca have threatened legal action against the Commissioner of Prisons over the conditions they are allegedly facing.

The legal threat on behalf of ten inmates, who are either convicted of or are awaiting trial for murder, was made in pre-action protocol letter sent to Prisons Commissioner Dennis Pulchan by their attorney Roshan Tota-Maharaj, yesterday.

In the letter, Tota-Maharaj claimed that his clients were moved to the building, which was named after a prison officer who was murdered in 2018, earlier this year after they were deemed “high risk” or “high profile.”

“They all complain that not only has access to running water been generally limited, such access was generally insufficient for toilet use,” Tota-Maharaj said.

He also alleged that they were denied airing and visits from their relatives and attorneys.

“Further, both natural lighting and ventilation of Building 12 was and remains extremely poor, each cell contains a small window that fails to provide enough lighting for reading and offers very little ventilation,” Tota-Maharaj said.

He said that his clients all alleged that they witnessed several unprovoked incidents of physical abuse by masked prison personnel.

“In the night, all lights are turned off and the fully masked men in black randomly strike inmates close to the front of their cells,” he said.

“These actions are compounded by the fact that our clients have been refusing what little meals they received during this period as they fear that the said meals were tampered with,” he added.

He suggested that the conditions being applied to his clients bore striking similarities with solitary confinement.

“In particular, their current imprisonment reflects reduction in stimuli, cell size, presence of windows and light and access to sanitary fixtures for personal hygiene,” Tota-Maharaj said.

Tota-Maharaj suggested that the conditions breached his clients’ rights under Section 5(2) of the Constitution, which precludes the imposition of cruel and usual punishment. He also claimed that the conditions were against the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

He questioned whether there was an alleged policy of allowing prison personnel working in the building to wear masks or whether such masked persons were third parties and not prison officers.

“While both scenarios are repugnant and contrary to the good administration of prison, it remains to be pointed out that not only do the Prison Rules not permit the use of disguises in the Prison by its officers, any exercise of your discretion to permit same would be extremely likely to be irrational and/or illegal and thus, wrong,” he said.

In the letter, Tota-Maharaj said he would file a lawsuit on their behalf unless the masked guards are removed, they are allowed to have discussions with their lawyers after 6 pm and visits from relatives. They are also seeking their one-hour airing time and improved conditions in their cells.

Tota-Maharaj gave Pulchan 28 days in which to respond to the letter.

Responding to similar allegations made by one of Tota-Maharaj’s clients on Wednesday, Pulchan denied any wrongdoing.

“If it is legitimate, that letter is propaganda. The man who would have drafted it is simply looking for sympathy from the public for justification for the killing of officers, especially Mr Jones,” Pulchan said.

“They are at war, and propaganda is the tool of terrorists. No such thing was reported or heard of prior to this letter being released to the public,” Pulchan added.

In a press release issued yesterday in response to complaints over the conditions, the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) called for independent monitoring of the country’s prisons.

“The CCHR continues to be deeply concerned about the inhumane conditions in the prisons, the persistent allegations of abuse of prisoners by prison officers and the lack of any monitoring system to ensure that prisoners’ living conditions meet the minimum human rights standards,” its executive director Denise Pitcher said.

Pitcher said her organisation was also concerned by the fact that the post of Inspector of Prisons has been vacant for almost three years.

It called on National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds to allow it to independently monitor the situation.

“We hope that the Honourable Minister will accept our offer of service in an effort to respect the human rights and dignity of those he has been entrusted to care for,” Pitcher said.