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Monday, March 31, 2008

"Prison not make to ripe fig"

People will hear many unsubstantiated rumours about prison and prison life. We get a lot of what we think we know about prison from television, whether fictionalised accounts like HBO's Oz and Fox's Prison Break, or from various National Geographic and MSNBC specials.

A former Prime Minister who has so far avoided lengthy incarceration gave us the caption to this post when speaking about local prisons. And on the odd occasion, one will hear prisoners and prisons officers let something slip about life on the inside.

A news story this weekend though provides a telling idea of how horrifying prison in Trinidad and Tobago must be. The Express' Jensen LaVende in covering the Magistrates Court published a story of a prisoner who would rather die than go to prison, ironically, to die. Emphasis here is mine.

THE stench of blood lingered in the Port of Spain Tenth Magistrate's Court Room on Thursday, long after a bleeding prisoner was dragged off by police, kicking and screaming, to the holding cell.

Randy Mason was so disturbed that he was remanded into custody after Magistrate Andrew Stroude revoked his bail, that he slammed his head three times into the wooden walls of the courtroom.

Mason, of Sixth Avenue, Barataria, was out on bail for possession of a firearm and ammunition and appeared in court on Thursday.

Everything appeared calm until Stroude said that Mason would be going to jail.

Mason asked Stroude for a phone call to inform his family. Stroude complied and ordered that this be done. Mason then begged Stroude to have mercy on him and let him go home.

"They would kill me if ah go up dey, they go stab me. Mr Stroude, yuh go read about me," he cried as court officers tried to handcuff him to take him down to the holding cell to await transfer to prison.

He then threw himself on the ground and continuously begged not to go to jail. Mason slammed his head into the wooden prisoner's dock twice. He did it a third time on the wall at the back of the courtroom, and again in the corridor used by court officials while shouting of "ah rather dead".

There were clots of blood and a long bloody trail leading down to the holding cell after Mason was finally taken downstairs. Mason was taken to the Port of Spain General Hospital and then to prison.

He is expected to reappear on April 4.

If a man would rather smash his own skull than go to prison, one can begin to understand why a bandit will do literally anything to avoid incarceration, including murder potential witnesses.

The incident puts paid to something I've heard over and over of late: that the young criminal isn't afraid to die, but they 'fraid jail bad bad bad.

It begs the question though, why doesn't that fear stop them from getting into criminal activity in the first place?

Perhaps they begin with a sense of invulnerability when they're young and feel that they will never get caught.

It's possible that prison life is so horrific that no one ever tells them what it's really like in clear and graphic terms. Maybe then when they get a first taste for themselves, they swear that they will never go back.

Either way, things need to get to a stage where prison becomes part of a set of deterrents from engaging in criminal activity, rather than the raw impetus for finding ways - legal and illegal - to avoid incarceration.

The matter here isn't unique to Trinidad and Tobago, nor is it restricted to our own lower classes. One only needs consider the time, money and effort exhausted by our own alleged white collar criminals to avoid even a day in Court, and to evade extradition to foreign jurisdictions.

Lying, cheating, stealing, twisting the law, and delaying justice are all fair methods it would seem to avoid prison. One wonders how soon it will be before we find that one of the upper crust has taken a life - directly or indirectly - to avoid jail time...

But as Slate's Daniel Gross notes, the motivations of the rich might not be that much different from those of the poor in any case.

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