Human Rights Abuses In Trinidad and Tobago: A Look At Its Police and Prison Service

By Margreta Davis, Contributor 

As many as 15 prisoners are crammed into a cell making it difficult to sleep. Prisons are in deplorable conditions, infested with rats and cockroaches.

Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), officially known as the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, is the southernmost nation in the Caribbean. It is a sovereign twin island state full of diversity and culture. This diversity and culture has led to a number of festivals including Carnival and Diwali. Trinidad and Tobago is the birthplace of steelpan and calypso music. It is also where I was born. According to the 2018 UN World Happiness Report, Trinidad and Tobago is 38th happiest country in the world and the happiest country in the Caribbean. Sadly, this happiness has been overshadowed by an increasing crime rate and substantial poverty.

Violence has touched my family on a few occasions. Three of my cousins have been the victim of murder. On Dec 29, 2009, at 7 p.m., residents in Arima (my home town) heard several gunshots and called the police. When officers arrived on the scene they found the bullet-riddled body of Anthony Ramdeen, my cousin, slumped behind the steering wheel of his car. He was murder number 500 that year. He was not known to be involved in any crime and his killer has never been caught. My second cousin suffered the same fate a few months later. He was shot in his car and his body stuffed in the trunk. Before these two murders took place, a third cousin of mine disappeared. No one knows what happened to him and his whereabouts still remains a mystery. He disappeared without a trace, never to be heard from again. The talk around town is that he was shot and his body was tossed over a cliff.

Violent crime has been on the rise in Trinidad over the past decade or so. At its peak, there were 550 murders in 2008. In 2015 Trinidad and Tobago had the 11th highest crime rate in the world (UN study) with a murder rate that year of 410. That number rose to 463 in 2016 and 494 in 2017. This year, Trinidad and Tobago may have the highest murder rate in history if the current crime rate continues. Organized crime, drug trafficking and gang activity contributed to this steady increase of violent crime. This increase in crime has also led to human rights abuses, perpetrated by police officers and the prison system of Trinidad and Tobago as they try to bring crime under control. The 2017 Trinidad and Tobago Human Rights Report stated that the most significant human rights issues on the island include police and prison officials’ mistreatment of detainees.

The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Regulations of 2007 can be considered as the constitution of the T&T Police Department. Part IX details the Custody And Care Of Prisoners and Part XII details the Conduct of Officers. In spite of the existence of these regulations, there are human rights abuses reported even at initial police-citizen encounters. Citizens stopped by police for simple motor vehicle violations are beaten – kicked and stomped in the head. There have also been incidents where unarmed citizens were shot and killed. Trinidad and Tobago adopted the Penal Reform but in spite of this, inhumane conditions still persist in its prisons. Goals of Penal Reform include a criminal justice system that respects the rule of law, upholds the rights of suspects/defendants, prevention of inhumane treatment and conditions for prisoners and prevention of torture in all places of detention. However, while in holding cells, prisoners are beaten with books and housed in rooms with extremely cold temperatures.

Prison officials neglect the health needs of prisoners – they have to wait months for prescription drugs. Prisoners are not treated as human beings once they are placed behind bars. Prisons are overcrowded, the prison in the capital of Port of Spain was built to accommodate 275 prisoners but at times house more than 1,000 inmates. As many as 15 prisoners are crammed into a cell making it difficult to sleep. Prisons are in deplorable conditions, infested with rats and cockroaches. The government took some steps to punish security forces and other officials charged with killings and other abuses, but the nature of investigations and long criminal justice proceedings created a climate of impunity.

There is a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) in Trinidad and Tobago where the inappropriate behavior of police officers can be reported but little is done. There are analysts who speculate that the increase of police shootings is a direct result of the rise in violent crime committed by increasingly well-armed criminal elements. There is a desperate need for comprehensive criminal reform to restore law and order in Trinidad and Tobago, and a special commission should also be put in place to investigate and punish all human rights abusers. The new Police Commissioner is making great strides but Trinidad and Tobago need to get back to the views of its founding fathers: “Together We Aspire, Together We Achieve.”

About Author: Margreta Davis is a Master’s student at Rutgers Division of Global Affairs.

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