It’s been a rough forty-eight hours, a woman Marisela Gonzalez was found badly beaten and shot to the head, left dead in a bushy area of San Pedro Town. A young man, Shakeem Dennison was shot and killed in Belize City in the Yarborough area and died sometime later. Those two stories were buried by the uprisings at the Kolbe Prison system where 28 prisoners escaped from the Administration Segregation building, the largest escape recorded in the prison’s 18-year history. Today, October 13th 2020, one of the escapees were killed while being pursued by authorities and another prisoner was killed at the prison during a day of uprisings on prison grounds. Police and prison officers were also injured during the perceived chaos within Belize’s correctional facility. These situations, all three, have me contemplating much about the construct of justice, the delivery of justice within the Belize and law enforcement. The latter of which I’ve written about before. Curiosity has me thinking: How did we get here? How we can use this boiling point as an opportunity to redefine what justice means to us?
To answer the first question, I go back to the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) conference held under the theme, ‘COVID 19: Securing Our Caribbean Community Within The Era Of Covid-19 and Beyond.’ On July 31st 2020, Executive Director of the Kolbe Foundation Belize Central Prison, Virgilio Murillo, gave a presentation highlighting the challenges the prison was facing during the pandemic. He shared some statistics stating that the concurrent SOEs from the COVID 19 pandemic and the gang SOEs increased the prison population by 362 with 55% of that number attributed to the trawling of suspected gang affiliates from the streets of Belize City. He also shared that at the time of his presentation the prison had a total population of 1272 inmates with 36% on remand and the remaining 64% being convicted. The challenges that were direct to the pandemic included increased psychological pressures on the inmates because of the uncertainty brought about by the disease, discrimination against any new admissions in the prison for fear that they may be infected, and decreased recreational time including the ceasing of visitation and sporting activities. He noted that for the prison itself, the mandatory isolation limited the ability to properly classify inmates and required more cell blocks. He also noted not having enough PPEs and staff to care for and supervise isolated inmates, and a huge drop in sales from the industrial and commissary zones of the prison. The most interesting revelation coming from that presentation was that the prison received no donation of Personal Protective Equipment from the domestic public and private sector until the CARICOM IMPACS made a donation. Even more jarring was that the staff members of the prison were experiencing burn out because of the increase in health security requirements and finally, that there was a clear imbalance in the inmate and prison officer ration at the facility. (CARICOM IMPACS, 2020) Could all these sweltering pressures have contributed to the “weak fence” which saw almost 30 abscond from Kolbe with a high powered weapon and ammo to match? Are we seeing the classic unveiling of the rotting social institutions that crisis bares naked for us to see? This is an institution that in the 2017/2018 fiscal budget got $6,979,048BZD to “to protect society by ensuring the safe custody and supporting the rehabilitation of prisoners.” (Government of Belize, 2019)
“You feel me! Yeh! Cheer up man, you look sad more than me. Never worry too much for me, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel-either it is sunlight that marks the end of your suffering, or the last light you see on this earth, and that too marks the end of your suffering.”(Gayle,2016)
I want us to go back to those primary questions about justice and if that is a bit too abstract, think about the lyrics of Lucky Dube’s timeless track Prisoner in which he proclaims, “they won’t build no schools anymore, all they built were the prison, prison.” For our sake, think beyond physical buildings. I think about the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which are 122 comprehensive rules that guides us on how prisoner-both pre-trial and convicted- are to be treated. First adopted in 1957 and revised in 2015 to be called the Nelson Mandela Rules, I reflect on rule 43 part 1 that states, “In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be prohibited: (a) Indefinite solitary confinement; (b) Prolonged solitary confinement; (c) Placement of a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell; (d) Corporal punishment or the reduction of a prisoner’s diet or drinking water; (e) Collective punishment.” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2015) I also think about the Global Prison Trends 2020 report which points to options to put an ease on the prison system by avoiding pre-trial detentions using bail (cash bail or bail guarantor), travel bans (including seizure of documents) and other geographic and residence limitations (including house arrest), judicial or police supervision, restrictions on communication with specific persons, or a ban on specific activities such as driving or carrying alcoholic beverages. The report highlights that alternatives to prison sentences can also be employed such as supervision by a probation officer, electronic monitoring, house arrest, verbal sanctions, participation in rehabilitation programmes and community service orders even reaching into restorative justice and victim-offender mediation programmes. (Penal Reform International, 2020) All these along with an entire refocusing and recalibrating of how we view our collective “do the crime, do the time” narrative and an unmasking of the biases that cover the eyes of Lady Liberty should help us veer away from another incident such as today.
Of course, this is not exhaustive and there is always much to ponder and unpack after history has been made, good or bad. I believe that this one is worth much pondering so we in Belize don’t continue to lose lives and misallocate investments without the return of a safe and just Belizean society. I don’t know that we are ready to have a conversation about abolishing prisons just yet. Stay Curious.
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” –Ruth Bader Ginsberg, The Notorious RBG.
CARICOM IMPACS. (2020, July 31). CARICOM IMPACS STREAM. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWxZd_cP4bI&t=7360s
Gayle, H. M. (2016). Like Bush Fire: A study on Male Participation and Violence in Urban Belize. Benque Viejo Del Carmen, Cayo, Belize: Cubola Productions.
Penal Reform International. (2020). Executive Summary Global Prison Trends 2020. Retrieved from https://cdn.penalreform.org/: https://cdn.penalreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Global-Prison-Trends-2020-Executive-Summary-in-English-.pdf
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2015). The United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/: https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/Nelson_Mandela_Rules-E-ebook.pdf