By Stanford Conway
More than two inmates of Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) will be seeking legal action against the authorities of that penal institution.
This is a result of the first completed case in the jurisdiction of newly appointed Resident Judge Francis Belle, which turned out to be a watershed because of its uniqueness in the assault of four prisoners by officers of HMP.
Bruce Rogers, Vincent Taylor, Kemba Swanston and Mervin Jeremy appeared before Justice Francis Belle at the Basseterre High Court on charges of assaulting Superintendent of Prisons Franklin Dorsett, Assistant Superintendent Ashiela Connor and Basic Grade Officer Neville Caines, while they were inmates of the prison.
According to the depositions, Bruce Rogers and Vincent Taylor assaulted Superintendent Dorsett in the execution of his duty, while Mervin Jeremy assaulted Basic Grade Officer Caines in the execution of his duty and Kemba Swanston along with Bruce Rogers assaulted Assistant Superintendent Connor in the execution of his duty.
These incidents took place at HMP on Nov. 2, 2004 .
However, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, some three days after listening to testimonies from the accused, victims, witnesses and a medical practitioner, a 12-member mixed jury returned a not guilty verdict, which could give rise to a civil suit against the authorities of HMP.
According to the assault victims, the four accused and two other inmates were discovered smoking what appeared to be cannabis sativa (marijuana) in one of the cells at HMP.
They were ordered to exit the cell one at a time and stand in single file, but after doing so the four accused started being boisterous and one of them threateningly pushed his hand in the face of the most senior officer on the ground.
The most senior officer claimed that the accused, Taylor, said, “you think anybody fraid you, we want smoke we ganja to get our wisdom too.”
He added that the three other accused followed in similar manner and he gave instructions to have them all handcuffed.
“Assim Parris was handcuffed and he conducted himself peacefully, also Omax Bye co-operated,” Dorset said. “When the number one accused, Bruce Rogers was handcuffed on one hand by Officer Charles Molineaux, the numbers two, three and four accused started shouting, ‘don’t let nobody handcuff you’. At that time they were on the staircase in the upstairs section.”
The senior officer added that Rogers ran into the prison yard and was pursued by he and another officer and, as he was assisting the officer in handcuffing the prisoners Vincent Taylor kicked him in his back.
“I had a baton in my hand and I started swinging the baton to get away from Bruce Rogers and Vincent Taylor. I think that I struck Bruce Rogers in his forehead with the said baton. I then ran through the gate and left the prison yard and into the gate lodge or reception area to call the police for assistance,” Dorset said.
He also claimed that the police arrived and on his return to the prison yard, he saw Taylor strike Basic Grade Officer Neville Caines with a black baton on his chest.
“With the assistance of the police and the use of the rubber bullet gun,” he said. “The prisoners were brought under control. The four accused were all searched and I found a quantity of vegetable matter suspected to be cannabis sativa in the underpants of Bruce Rogers.”
Dorset said his right thumb was cut during his attempt to subdue the inmates and the right side of his head was in pain from a blow he got from Rogers.
“Two of the inmates were injured and a number of prison officers were injured. Bruce Rogers and Vincent Taylor were injured and taken to the JNF Hospital and were treated and discharged. All prison officers who were injured were also taken to the JNF Hospital and were treated and discharged, ” Dorset said.
During Dorset’s cross-examination by two of the prisoners testimony revealed that Taylor did not wanting to be placed in shackles was because of an earlier beating after being shackled.
The accused testified that that were injured after being beaten with batons and shot with rubber bullets while their hands and feet were shackled.
Kemba Swanston, who is a remanded prisoner, claimed that he was placed among convicted prisoners since his arrival at the prison and after being beaten and shot was confined in one of the condemned cells along with the other three accused.
While two of the four accused, including Vincent Taylor, were represented by Chesley Hamilton, the others conducted their own defence and evidence revealed that they were the victims of assault and not the prison officers.
All four accused prisoners were acquitted. Vincent Taylor is now a free man because he completed his sentence, while his co-accused Kemba Swanston is still in remand awaiting trial for the offence he allegedly committed and, Bruce Rogers and Mervin Jeremy continue to serve their original sentences.
According to one of the better legal minds in the Federation, the case bordered on civil suits against the authorities; for it was proven in court that there was an infringement of the prisoners’ constitutional rights.
The senior counsel noted a number of similar cases that occurred in and out of the Caribbean but emphasised on the Peters v Marksman and Another in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines High Court presided by Justice Adams J on April 12-13, 1999.
He said that on August 26, 1996, while serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter at the State Prison for men in Kingstown, 40-year-old Reynold Peters allegedly assaulted Senior Prison Officer Linus Goodluck.
The Senior Counsel added that Peters allegedly hit Goodluck in the back of his head with a three-foot length of two inch by two inch wood, rendering him unconscious for several hours.
“Even while Goodluck was unconscious and being dragged from the prisons, Peters allegedly pursued him with the length of wood attempting to strike him again. However there was no suggestion that Peters succeeded in striking him again or was there any indication what sparked the assault,” the Senior Counsel said.
The Senior Counsel said Rogers was charged by the police with assault causing actual bodily harm but, also on the day in question, he was additionally charged with various contraventions of Section 50 of the Prison Rules and was taken before the Superintendent of Prisons for disciplinary action.
“The Superintendent of Prisons found Peters guilty of the disciplinary charges and ordered 10 strokes with a cat-o-nine tails and to cellular confinement. He was placed lying on his stomach on a bench with iron stays to each of his legs to keep them in place.
“His hands were handcuffed, a hood placed over his face, his back exposed and the flogging with 10 strokes of the cat-o-nine tails was then carried out. Following the physical punishment, Rogers was placed in a cell and allowed out only for a short period each day to shower. He was confined to that cell from the day his physical punishment was awarded until the hearing of his application on July 24, 1997,” he said.
In addition, the Senior Counsel said, Rogers had to eat and sleep bounded by shackles and handcuffs, which were sometimes removed for short periods when he showered, and the inhumane treatment left him with physical scars.
From this backdrop, the trial judge found that Peters being shackled was a violation of the prison laws, noting the conduct was reminiscent of the African slave trade.
The Senior Counsel quoted the Chief Justice, saying, “A tragic day it was in August 1996 when darkness fell upon this land through the activities of a public official serving the State of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the capacity of Superintendent of Prisons.
“As if he were a law unto himself he laid a charge against the applicant, which he had no authority to bring, inflicted the punishment of flogging, which the law did not permit, shackled the hands and feet of another human for months on end with occasional relief and, after his avenging lust had spent itself, consigned the aching body of Reynold Peters to solitary confinement.”
The Senior Counsel explained that the Judge awarded damages to the tune of $225, 000 to Peters, whose charges for assaulting Senior Prison Officer Linus Goodluck were not heard at the same trial but in a subsequent one.