TOO MUCH ABUSE
By JADA LOUTOO Wednesday, May 7 2014
A HIGH Court Judge, noting that incarcerated persons have and continue to be subjected to assault and battery that are unjustified awarded a prisoner $70,000 in damages for a beating he received from an officer at the Golden Grove State Prison. The judge is also calling for an overhaul of the 176 year-old prison rules under which the penal institutions in Trinidad and Tobago operate.
Justice Frank Seepersad expressed his opinion as he ruled in favour of Shaleem Shazim Mohammed, who has been awaiting trial for murder for the past 10 years. The Judge awarded Mohammed $25,000 in damages and exemplary damages of $45,000 for the beating he received on July 5, 2010 at the Golden Grove State Prison, Arouca, at the hands of a prison officer.
“It is undeniable and this judgment confirms the position that persons that are incarcerated have and continue to be subjected to assault and battery that are unjustified,” Seepersad said while delivering his ruling.
“Such a position is unacceptable and the State ought never to be allowed to shield itself from liability by virtue of the fact that persons are incarcerated and do not have the necessary access to legal representation.”
The issue of prison litigation came to the fore after former Solicitor General Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell wrote to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on August 30, 2013, two months after High Court Master Patricia Sobion-Awai found that significant portions of court filings from previous litigation by prisoners making claims against the State, were lifted by prison inmate Jamal Sambury in his assault and battery claim. The Master ruled that Sambury sought to mislead the court as to his injuries and the actual circumstances of his assault and battery. Master Sobion-Awai’s ruling has been referred to the Disciplinary Committee of the Law Association by the Registrar of the High Court.
Seepersad in his ruling yesterday said he felt it incumbent to make certain pronouncements as it related to this issue of the assault and battery of persons who are incarcerated. “The question of the physical conditions of persons held at the state prisons and the issue of the assault of person who are incarcerated have been the subject of discussion both by judges and members of the public in the recent past, more particularly in recent months. The issue of the abuse of prisoners has found itself at the forefront of national discussion,” the judge recognised.
He was adamant that when such instances occur and persons were able to make contact with attorneys, “ there must be an obligation on their legal representation to ensure that the matter is litigated in accordance with the regulations as outlined under the Legal Professions Act.”
“Once there is compliance with the regulations under the Legal profession Act then no criticism ought to be afforded to any attorney who takes it upon himself/herself to assist a citizen who has been subjected to unjustified and unacceptable behaviour by functionaries of the State,” Seepersad stressed.
He said the abuse of persons that were incarcerated “must not and cannot be allowed to continue.”
“There is an urgent need for the revisiting of not only the physical conditions that operate at the Prisons but there is a dire need for the proper training and equipment of persons who are charged with the responsibility of dealing with prisoners on a daily basis,” he added. The State, the judge said, had an obligation to ensure that officers in the protective services were psychologically and emotionally suited and equipped to discharge “the sometimes onerous responsibility that is placed upon their shoulders.”
He said there was a need for continued psychological assessment, support and adequate training for servants of the State. Seepersad further called for a review and revision of the Prison rules. “It cannot be that in 2014 we are operating under rules pursuant to the West Indian Prison Act 1838. The adequate revision of rules may serve to guide the prison officers as to the expectations placed upon them as well as the procedure that ought to be adopted when dealing with prisoners,” he stressed.
In the case before Seepersad, the prisoner, Mohammed, said on July 5, 2010, he was a location orderly and was doing his daily checks of inmates in their cells when he heard someone call out to him.
He realised it was prison officer Imran Khan who told him to go bathe and stand in his prison cell. He said he told Khan he was in the process of tabulating the roster for the night and if he did as was told he would not be able to complete it. After some exchange between the two, Mohammed said as he was walking to his cell located in the “shallows”, he was told to go into cell No 10, although his cell was No 2. He said he indicated that to Khan who was choking him and hitting his head against the wall. In his defence, Khan said he arrived at an area called the “deep” at the North Upper Wing of the prison when he heard a commotion. He said he was the only prison officer present and when he intervened the commotion settled. Khan said he gave instructions to the inmates to go to their respective cells. All the inmates except Mohammed complied. He said he did open cell No 10 for Mohammed, assuming he was sleeping there and after being informed that he was not sleeping in that cell, Khan said he instructed him to go by cell No 2. Mohammed, the prison officer claimed, was being aggressive and struck him across the forehead, causing his beret to fall off his head. He admitted to feeling threatened and drew his regulation staff, hitting Mohammed once, although he is not certain where he struck the inmate.
In his ruling Seepersad held that the injuries, sustained by Mohammed, as evidenced by the medical report submitted, were not consistent with the claims made by the prison officer as it related to his use of force.
The judge said the medical report revealed extensive injuries more extensive than a blow to the face, and found that more than one blow was inflicted. Seepersad did find that there was some exaggeration of the complaints made by Mohammed of headaches he still experiences as a result of the blow he received. He said there was no application made for an independent medical examination to ascertain any long-standing condition suffered by Mohammed. However, he said this did not impact his credibility as it related to the substantive claim of assault and battery.
At a press conference yesterday, attorney Gerald Ramdeen, who represented Mohammed and who also represents Sambury, referred to the comments made by Seepersad as he sought to defend himself and his decision to represent prisoners in court.
“During my 14 years of practice I have conducted over 200 cases involving prisoners. There are many challenges associated with representing a prisoner who is incarcerated as opposed to a free man. The prisoner is at the mercy of the State and the authorities and his ability to give full and proper instructions and being interviewed is somewhat different,” Ramdeen said.
(SEE PAGE 8A)