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President of the Prison Officers Association Ceron Richards addresses members of the media during a news conference at the union’s office on Railway Road, Arouca, yesterday. (Image: ABRAHAM DIAZ)

The Prison Officers’ Association is supporting the Government’s proposed move to help facilitate the release of some prisoners due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Speaking at a news conference at the association’s headquarters in Arouca, yesterday morning, its President Ceron Richards suggested that the move would directly assist in reducing overcrowding at prison facilities and consequently the potential spread of the virus. 

However, Richards suggested that it should include elderly prisoners, whose death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, as well as prisoners accused or convicted of minor criminal charges including failure to pay child maintenance and traffic offences. 

According to Richards, most of those prisoners were between 60 and 70 years old, suffered from diseases such as diabetes and hypertension and had already served over 30 years’ in prison. He also claimed that most of them were among the best-behaved prisoners and were most receptive to rehabilitation. 

“One convicted inmate told me he was inside so long that he actually requested to attend the funeral of Dr Eric Williams,” Richards said. 

While Richards admitted that such releases were to be facilitated by the Judiciary and the Mercy Committee, he noted that Prison Service would have an input into who stands to benefit based on their disciplinary record whilst incarcerated. 

Richards also claimed that if electronic monitoring of persons had been operational and legislation for parole had been passed by Parliament, as repeatedly suggested by the association, the process could have been completed quicker and easier.   

Besides releasing some prisoners, Richards called on the Government to supplement its already depleted fleet to transport prisoners that may need to be transferred to other facilities and to solve water issues at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca. 

While Richards repeatedly admitted that prisons’ conditions still remain far from perfect, he called on his members to continue to support the Prison Service. 

“Of course we don’t exist in the best situation but we, being members of an essential service, make it a priority for us to support the State at a time when it is in need,” he said. 

Also speaking at the press conference was the association’s General Secretary Lester Walcott, who confirmed that additional protocols had been implemented to help prevent persons with COVID-19 from entering prison facilities. 

Walcott said that prison officers had been issued with personal protective equipment (PPE) and thermal scanners to be used on all visitors and staff entering such facilities. 

Walcott noted that after the Arouca Police Station was temporarily closed last week after a police officer with a recent travel history complained of feeling unwell, a prisoner, who was at the station at the time, was quarantined. 

However, Walcott noted that he had not shown any symptoms of the virus. 

In a press release issued yesterday, President of the Single Fathers Association of T&T Rhondall Feeles said that his organisation also supported the move especially for prisoners serving sentences for failing to pay child maintenance. 

“This call, however, is NOT one to discontinue the payment of child maintenance but rather to discourage imprisonment of these non-criminal offenders during this COVID-19 pandemic period,” Feeles said. 

He suggested that all persons required to make such payments should register with the Judiciary’s Court Pay Electronic Payment System. 

“The SFATT sees this as a positive move in the right direction and hopes that even after this period that our country examines less punitive and costly measures to compel persons to comply with these non-criminal offences. Jail is surely not the answer,” Feeles said.