Advent is about waiting in joyful hope. Visiting the prison during this time has opened the season’s mystery in new and exciting ways.
Waiting has a very different meaning for the men and women in prison. I understand why Jesus highlights the prisoner as a special way of encountering His love (Matt 25:36). The prisoner in Trinidad lives in a perpetual state of Advent. They are constantly waiting in brutal and inhumane circumstances. In them, God is waiting.
Imagine your mother committed suicide and four years later the police arrested you for her murder. This is a capital crime so there is no bail. You remain in Remand Yard till your trial is over, upwards of ten years for a verdict, then you are declared innocent. You have had to wait on justice to take its sweet time. You may say this is the price of justice for all? I say this price is too high! The system is inhumane!
In Port of Spain, the prison conditions are deplorable. The ancient cells, which may hold up to three men, have one small opening to the outside and a grill gate to a corridor. No toilet facilities, no sink or washbasin, no privacy. Many cells have no mattresses. Most sleep on boards or on the ground. The innocent prisoner waits in joyful hope.
In Trinidad and Tobago, poverty is a criminal offence. Many are in prison as a result of poverty. They are not landowners who can put up their land for bail or have the cash that can be substituted for land, if the judge allows cash bail. If they had money or land, they would live normal lives till their cases were finished, then face prison if found guilty or be let off on a fine.
The poverty cycle is compounded: while in prison you lose your children, significant relationships and your life. After spending seven years in prison, even if the court says you are innocent, who will hire you now? How do you pick up your life? You wait with joyful hope or get frustrated, angry and bitter.
We have 4,127 prisoners in Trinidad and Tobago: some 2,349 or (57 per cent) are on remand. Something is wrong.
We have prisoners serving life sentences for 33 years or more. This is inhumane. There needs to be a fixed point of review, when those found to be a good influence are given their freedom and necessary support to integrate into society. The standards of our society are set by how we treat the most vulnerable, the weakest and those that are undeserving.
Our lock-them-up/throw-away-the-key mentality is inhumane! What is worse is that the decisions of the Privy Council in the Pratt and Morgan and Lewis cases demand that many of our prisoners on life sentences be set free.
Some lawyers believe successive governments have been breaking the law by keeping these citizens in jail. How can we encourage respect for the law? The Mercy Committee has not acted for many years, except in cases where extreme illness has been an issue. We have become a nation without justice and without mercy.
A Sentencing Commission Act was passed in 2000 and updated in 2015. The Commission, which is tasked to do a lot of this work, is woefully under resourced. This is where we need to start. There is also the Bail Amendment Act of 2019. When passed and implemented, it will have great impact.
Where there is injustice and a trampling of the dignity of people, our waiting cannot be passive. We must wait actively, asking the difficult questions of our leaders and those responsible, until there is a satisfactory resolution. We need to raise our voice for justice for those on the margins and those who have no voice.
One young man made me promise I would speak of the injustice in the system. One young woman made me promise I would not forget her or her case. They would not let me go till I promised. Someone had to listen and respond; to care and believe.
I saw the face of Christ in prison two weeks ago. It is a haunting, challenging face. Christ challenges all of us in our treatment of the prisoner, the homeless and the migrant. Christ waits for us to build a civilisation of justice, peace and love.
Rev Charles J Gordon
The Most Rev Charles J Gordon is archbishop of Port of Spain