Writer KAELANNE JORDAN joined Archbishop Jason Gordon on his recent visit to three of the nation’s penal institutions.
Archbishop Jason Gordon made a promise to clients—formerly referred to as inmates—of the Maximum Security Prison (MSP) that he will continue the work Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris began in petitioning for Presidential Pardons for incarcerated and remand clients be-hind bars longer than the max-i-mum prison term if they had been found guilty of their crimes.
The Archbishop said he was cognisant that his predecessor took a number of “different cases” to the President and the Attorney General and “everybody that he could” requesting that they “look at these things more carefully”.
“Because we know there are about 2,000 people right now on remand and some are innocent, some are guilty, some are spending more time in remand than the judgement they will get for the crime they did. We know.
“And I know that Archbishop Harris did a lot to try and bring consciousness of that to the society. And I promise you I will do a lot myself,” Archbishop Gordon said during a visit to the facility Thursday, December 13.
His assurance was given in response to a plea to use his “personal office” to appeal to the Mercy Committee.
The Archbishop’s annual prison visits began Monday, December 10 and culminated Friday 14. That Thursday, he also visited the Eastern Correctional Rehabilitation Centre (ECRC) and the Youth Training Rehabilitation Centre (YTRC).
Re-setting lives and the justice system
During the Question and Answer session, incarcerated and remand clients were critical of the failing and inhumane justice system. A 74-year-old client incarcerated for over two decades shared about his rapidly deteriorating health as he suffers from osteoarthritis and glaucoma.
“No one seems to care,” he commented while also speaking of the deaths of two elderly clients, days prior. He added that elderly, ailing clients should not be considered a “threat” to the wider population and as such, be freed.
The Archbishop said that he requested a meeting with the President to discuss matters related to the Mercy Committee. His comments were met with applause from clients. “…We have a long way to go in Trinidad and Tobago because we have not been treating the prisoners well. The justice system has not worked well for you. I understand, I hear and I will do all I can,” he reiterated.
During his visit to YTRC, Archbishop Gordon urged the youths to either choose the way of anger, pain and shame or begin to grow and contribute to their life and society. “Only you can shape the life that you live,” he said.
The Archbishop gave the example of former South African President, Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated for 27 years. “He chose that he would not be less of a man because he was in prison. But he also chose to be a disciplined man while he was in prison. He also chose that he would not hold hate and resentment to those who put him in prison. He also chose that he would never become a lesser person because he was behind bars.”
Archbishop Gordon reminded the clients that because of Mandela’s choices, he was able to lead his country into freedom and “a nation of reconciliation”. He told them though they may find it difficult to believe, God has a plan for their lives as he had for Mandela.
At the ECRC, his first stop, the Archbishop said that sometimes persons think it is so hard to get to God but they don’t recognise the many ways God reached them.
“When you in here, you have plenty time. You can’t run nowhere. But you know you can be here and running to [God]…. We have to choose whether or not we want to come to God,” he said.
Archbishop Gordon invited all gathered to repeat: “All men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He said we’ve all done what is wrong, what is against God’s law and what is despicable to God and other people. The clients were encouraged to ask for God’s mercy this Christmas season recognising that they’ve done wrong.
A view towards rehabilitation
Senior Superintendent Programmes and Industry department, Patrick King told the clients that the visits were “designed specially” for them. He hoped at the end of the visits they would choose how they plan to live their lives and avoid re-entry into the prisons.
He reminded them that “all the tests and challenges you face are not uncommon to man or God. You are not lost. You have an opportunity to do better so when you return to society, you will share the experiences you had to also change lives.”
Adding to the discourse, Superintendent MSP Noel Phillip said he has been charged with changing and converting lives although the average prison officer is not trained as an expert in any way.
He explained, It’s a very challenging job… we try our best as much as possible to cope with the demands of the expectations of government, other stakeholders and you, the client.”
Supt Phillip commented that the job is ably assisted by persons from the faith-based organisations. He thought it fitting that they faced the wall of the Michael Hercules gymnasium where the “principles” upon which faith is based is written–wisdom, justice, truth and discipline.
He highlighted the yeoman service conducted over the years by the RC Prison Ministry for clients at all prison establishments. “And they continue to support us and help us achieve our mandate in helping you,” he said.
Prison radio station
During the tour, Archbishop Gordon visited and was a guest on the RISE (Rehabilitating Inmates Seeking Employment) Maximum Radio Station. The programme, guided by the Acting Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Deopersad Ramoutar is a collaborative effort between clients and officers. He was accompanied by Assistant Commissioner Programmes and Industry Sherwin Bruce and two death-row clients.
In continuing the discussion, he said the way the current justice system is operating requires an architect. “Unfortunately, we’ve been hiring builders. Because when the light gone, you fix the light…but there’s a time when the patch work you do to a system doesn’t help anymore. You need to stand back, have an architect to look over the whole system and put the thing back together in a way that suits a modern democracy for the 21st century,” he said.
Archbishop Jason Gordon (left) was a special guest on Maximum Security Prisons’ (MSP) RISE radio programme. Video screen grab.
A MSP client puts a question to Archbishop Gordon. Photo courtesy the Communications Department of the T&T Prison Service.