(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — That correctional officer Patrick Gowans shot himself after murdering his spouse and the mother of his child on Wednesday, was proof for ex-inmate Henzel Muir that the officer was afraid to face the same harsh treatment that he himself meted out to inmates during his time with the Department of Correctional Services.
Muir, who served 21 years in three of Jamaica’s correctional facilities, told the Jamaica Observer that he knew the officer. In fact, he said Gowans was the last officer who, in jest, asked him for a search the very day before his release in 2015.
“The day before I left prison he was the officer who see me and him start joke and say ‘come Henzel, give a last search, mi a search; yuh for the last time’,” Muir reflected.
“But why you think him shoot himself? Because him know the condition and him know how him treated us. Him know say if him go prison him a go get it too.
“Him work in a the system for almost 30 years and he wouldn’t want to go, knowing the treatment weh him a go get because of what he bestowed upon inmates like ourselves. So the best route for him was to kill himself,” said Muir.
Muir, 44, who came forward to share his experiences in prison and what he indicated as weaknesses in the rehabilitation process, outlined issues of lack of proper health care, poor diet in prison, as well as the misconduct of correctional officers.
“The correctional officers don’t really know the laws that govern the prison; the inmates know it more. And because of that the inmates always having conflict with them, and that is why I always say it’s not only inmates who need to be rehabilitated, the officers also need rehabilitation.
“But other than that, prison is not a nice place, and the officer who shoot himself know that. “First of all, the diet in a prison sick yuh. I came out with high cholesterol and a thyroid problem because of that. We are entitled to fruits and we only got fruits once a week.
“I have a record of two weeks of diet, in a journal, inside the prison. I deliberately did this; from July 2011 to when I left in 2015.”
Based on Muir’s records, the typical diet in a day in prison includes boiled eggs with bread smeared with lard and cocoa tea for breakfast; for lunch rice and peas with brown stew chicken; and for dinner cornmeal porridge with bread and kidney.
“On other days, sometimes the most you get for breakfast is a peg of bread with black tea, and you just go with your bread and them just take up piece a lard and wipe it pon it. So the diet need to improve.
“Once in a while mutton or beef come inside the prison for the inmates and you will see the nice piece of mutton a go inside the kitchen, but when you get your food you nuh see the nice piece of meat, a just bone. When mi investigate it, the officer them will cut off the meat, gone with the meat, and leave the bone.”
Muir suggested that it has been a practise among some correctional officers to syphon off large portions of rice, flour, meat and other food items for their personal use.
“So there is a big business also going on with the kitchen inside the prison and the inmates’ diet. You have officers who work in the store area and open shop from it. What they need to do to prevent that is to rotate these officers.
“An inmate can’t get a bucket of flour unless the officer is getting half bag of rice. Remember, they are cooking for 1,000-odd inmates. Say it takes 100 pounds of rice to feed all the inmates, but you a guh always have some who not going to eat the food. So them ration out a certain amount that supposed to cook per day and take the rest.”
Even so, Muir said diet, as well as meal preparation, needs improvement. “Them need to prepare the meal better because all it do is sick us more. Ulcer, high blood pressure, sugar — a lot of that is happening. And when the medical officer write referral for the inmates to go to the hospital, it takes years before you can get treatment. Muir shared his own experience with a back injury that he incurred in 2011.
“In June 2011 I hit my back and the doctor inside the prisons wrote a reference for me to do an X-ray. I finally went and do that X-ray in February 2013, and trust me, you have referrals that take much longer than that.
“Now my big question is why is, it that the doctor would see the severity of this patient, made a referral, and the system took so long? They treat the inmates like some barbaric animals. Sometimes we go through pain and the only thing they give you is pain tablet. Many of us even develop many other sicknesses that we didn’t go in there with.”
Further to that, Muir revealed that many inmates have psychotic tendencies that are left untreated. “In the system you have too many psychotic inmates who are left unattended, and the system don’t have anything in place to see to it that these persons get attention; and what it does to is burden the system more.”
Muir said he developed a problem in prison, after the traumatic experience of the 1997 prison strike at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre resulted in chronic sleep deprivation.
“The riot took a toll on me; I couldn’t sleep. I was up in the night, just couldn’t sleep, and because of that now it break down my system. I went to the doctor and him realise that mi have a thyroid malfunction. In 1998, I was admitted in the hospital for about five days.
“Inside the prison they also give us medication that expired. If you see the dentist with a tooth that needs to be filled, that procedure cannot be done because, as them say, ‘The department don’t have any resources for those procedures. A prisoner them, extract it.’
“Now to me, that is against human rights and it is against the constitution. If you lock us way, you are to provide adequate health care, and that is not adequate health care if inmates have to wait for their teeth to get that decay for them to extract it. That can’t work, so I think the system need to do something about that.”
Muir also spoke frankly about how correctional officers sometimes hamper the rehabilitation of inmates, often through petty abuse of power and breaching the laws which govern the prison.
“Really and truly it is like the officers inside the prison hinder the rehabilitation process of the inmates and they hinder it in such a way, you would not believe.”
Lifting the veil on some of these issues, Muir illustrated what tends to happen when media or officials are invited inside to see the positive happenings.
“You might see them show videos of inmates in computer labs inside the prison. You believe that? What happen is that a superintendent will call a inmate and say ‘Mr Muir, the Observer is coming here. We want some intelligent inmates to come into the computer lab make them take pictures and so on’.
“I tell them no, you are not going to use me and that is one of the reasons why they had issues with me.”
Muir shared another example where positive activity inside the prison is often put on for show.
During his time at the South Camp Correctional Centre where, admittedly, he said there were more opportunities for inmates, Muir said the opportunity for inmates to participate in a music programme was abandoned by a superintendent, until Minister of State for National Security at the time, Arthur Williams visited the facility.
“I stayed in my cell and I saw when they took him around to the bands room and they were greeted by the dust.
“I was the bands leader in the prison at South Camp and I kept going to the superintendent daily for about a month asking her to write the permission slips for the inmates to play in the band and to be able to go out. She say she not writing any.
“One day when Arthur Williams visited the prison, the same superintendent calls me and say ‘Mr Muir a minister is coming here, and we told him about the band and the functions of it and I would like the band to set up because he wants to see it’.
And all she was there talking all I could do was look in her eyes and think, what a hypocrite.”
After that incident, Muir said he was transferred back to the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre or GP (General Penitentiary).
“Some member of staff called me to say the superintendent upset with me and they are going to transfer me because mi dis her based on what happened. I told them I am not a puppet and couple months after that, them transfer me.”
But on what grounds? Muir said it is the culture among correctional officers who feel slighted by inmates, to transfer inmates on grounds that are made up.
“They said they transferred me for medical reasons, but they could not find a real reason to transfer me. How it work is that anytime as an inmate you embarrass a superintendent inside the prison, you get transferred without you requesting it.”
Muir said these are but some of the ways in which correctional officers abuse their power. He explained that inmates who are found with cell phones or money are given more time on their sentence, which he said is not the correct procedure outlined in the Corrections Act.
“They have a tendency of charging inmates when they find them with money. They take it away, charge you for it and give additional time on your sentence.
But a section of the act says ‘all moneys, clothes or other effects belonging to inmate which he is not allowed to retain shall be place in custody of the superintendent, who should keep a list thereof in a book kept for that purpose and signed by the inmate upon admission or on discharge. Why are they charging inmates for his money and the law didn’t say that?”, Muir questioned.
“They also breach the Corrections Act by saying that only two person from your family can visit you in prison. The law did not say that. They restrict you and it is wrong. We want to see certain family and we can’t see them. That is a breach of some section of the Corrections Act.
“It is totally wrong; and my issue is that inmates are sent there as lawbreakers and wrong doers, but how can they describe us as wrongdoers when they are going contrary to the law? If you are my correction machinery who is supposed to correct me and you in turn breach the law to suit yourself, what are you telling me? You are not correcting me.
“They are violating the Corrections Act and even breaching the constitution, because them basically see inmates as nobodies who them can just suppress, so I think the system needs to look into that.”
Asked how inmates have money in prison to begin with, Muir stated frankly: “Look here, there is no difference between out here and inside. Any way you want to think, it’s the same. The only difference is the freedom. Friends or relatives will give an officer the money to take to the inmate, or we make we little money from inside.”
As for whether inmates are allowed conjugal visits, Muir replied, “If you want, but if me say anything else it might mash up the process. But conjugal visit is something them must implement because me see situations where inmates couldn’t hold out long and them end up become gay.
“But I think it would be a good thing for the inmates, because when them get such a privilege them won’t breach the regulations to lose that privilege.
“However, as a child of God, I think the conjugal visit should be done in a way where is only if a inmate married”, said Muir.