Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 30th 2015 Contents B8
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, July 30, 2015
By all accounts, Port-of-Spain resembled a film
set last week, though perhaps the jailbreak lacked
some of the glamorous filmic qualities one finds in
the old black and white gangster movies. There was
no wardrobe department, no make-up and no string
arrangement by Ennio Morricone.
Still, from afar it sounded dramatic. Here in London
the most exciting thing that happened in my week
was the annual general meeting of the residents asso-
ciation in the building where I live. Amongst discussions
about expenditure on tree pruning, lift maintenance
and a new roof, the revelation that a dead dog had
been found inside a bag next to the dustbins triggered
some appalled amusement. Whether the dog was later
skinned and served as chicken fried rice was a matter
left unresolved as a feverish debate over unpaid service
charges and new carpets took hold.
There is no glamour in death or in prison, and from
the CCTV footage it seemed obvious the three inmates
were unlikely to achieve freedom or a safe haven. It
looked more like an adrenaline-fuelled escapade as
an alternative to rotting in jail.
Prison breakouts in Britain are usually more discrete:
obtain a key, make a copy, fashion a rope out of bed-
sheets, pay off a guard to look the other way, or escape
while on day release from an "open prison."
That Trinidad s remand prisons are overflowing
with inmates still awaiting trial is unsustainable and
nobody should be surprised that an escape was
attempted. Comparisons to the coup were quickly
displaced on social media by pictures of the material
possessions of prisoners and the attire they wear.
Some were outraged by what they saw and clearly
inmates being able to obtain knives and guns is wor-
rying, even if it poses more of a threat to other inmates
than to members of the public or prison guards.
The complex sociology of running a prison---the
logistics of tens of staff dealing with hundreds of
inmates, the psychology of the regime, the limits of
flexibility in terms of leisure versus punishment, and
the difficulties in managing hierarchies of very serious
offenders, gang-related offenders and petty criminals
---quite often results in systems wherein guards allow
inmates to police themselves.
While many of us have no idea what passes for
everyday practice we have had glimpses through doc-
umentaries. Louis Theroux s brilliant documentary
Behind Bars, filmed in San Quentin, involved Theroux
interviewing serial killers and gang members and
showed the extent to which normalisation of life is
a prerequisite for a functioning prison society.
Prisons are societies removed from societies and,
as such, everyday material things, even pleasures, are
required to humanise those inside them, otherwise
what you are left with is a gulag. I have no answer
to the question of whether gulags or open prisons are
the best way to ensure that a released prisoner a)
readjusts to life outside and b) never wants to return
to jail, but for life inside a prison to be bearable for
the prison guards (and who would ever want that
job!) there has to be a degree of normality and placation.
The sanctioning of leisure and recreational objects
depends on individual circumstances and regimes.
Books and so forth should be encouraged. Commu-
nication devices seem incongruous to the nature of
penal institutions but at the same time a lack of contact
with family may increase risks of suicide and mental
illness. Clearly weapons are outlawed; but even so,
we know that weapons can be fashioned out of pens,
pencils, plates, plastic forks, cigarette lighters, sticks,
rocks, even spectacles.
Could turning a blind eye to marijuana help quell
violence? Would tacit agreements on pornography
reduce the number of prison rapes? Societies establish
their own rules over time. To the question of how
discipline and order are maintained, it s worth con-
sidering Foucault s Discipline and Punish in which the
concept of Panopticism is analysed. The idea of the
Panopticon prison, invented by the 18th/19th century
philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which cells were
designed in a circular layout around a central watch-
tower and flooded with backlight was intended to
Prisons are societies removed from societies
maintain the permanent uncertainty in pris-
oners minds as to whether they were being
observed. Humans behave very differently
when watched to when they feel invisible --
they are less likely to break the rules.
Foucault describes how Bentham s Panop-
ticon effects the machinery of visible, unver-
ifiable power by "reversing the principle of
the dungeon...to enclose, to deprive of light
and to hide...it preserves only the first and
eliminates the other two...Visibility is a trap."
The system was meant to overhaul the
lawless prisons and asylums of London, like
Newgate Prison described by Charles Dickens,
teeming with madmen, sick inmates, street
thieves and debtors.
When you pass by the lair that is the Fred-
erick Street prison you think only of a dun-
geon. The pictures on Facebook confirmed
that the inmates live in darkened, concealed
cells doing as they please.
The idea in Trinidad that you can do any-
thing as long as nobody sees needs funda-
The modern day equivalent of the Panop-
ticon is CCTV---the knowledge that we are
being watched. CCTV inside the prison didn t
stop the break out, but if the escapees had
a greater sense that Big Brother was watching
them they would have operated quite dif-
ferently and their audacious jailbreak might
have resulted in less chaos.
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