A-M u s i n g s: Guarding the Guards

Have I told you the one about the fox being in charge of the chicken coop? Probably not, well, maybe, but I’m not even sure you’d appreciate the point. It seems to be such a regular thing in Saint Lucia, having foxes take care of chicks, I mean, that it almost seems the proper way of going about things.

Take lawyers and judges, for example. I mean what could be wrong with having a judge, a former judge, or even a lawyer, being put in charge of, say, the Mercy Commission or the Parole Board? At first glance, nothing, I suppose; but when you think about it for a while, you might come to the conclusion that everything about such an appointment might be wrong.

Many years ago, when I was engaged fairly intensely in the prison system, there was quite a lot of confusion with regard to the Mercy Commission and its workings. Inmates at the prison, especially around Christmas and the New Year, were galvanized into writing long letters asking for mercy as they believed that at those times of love, joy and compassion several of them would be granted mercy and set free.

Naturally enough, with leaders who, to a large extent were lawyers, any hint that justice might not have been served, or that sentences were harsher than a crime merited, was anathema. It was simply unthinkable that a magistrate or a judge could have ruled unfairly. I mean, that’s what lawyers believe; for them it is an article of faith: the law might be wrong, but until it is changed, the law is inviolate and just and those sentenced simply have to suffer their fate.

I recall spending an inordinate length of time in the office of a government minister whose job it was to ‘run’ the mercy commission – the Governor General was the titular head of the commission but had no real power – pleading the cases of two inmates who, I thought, deserved clemency, The minister closed our discussions with the assurance that I should leave it to him and all would be well. He was well acquainted with the cases.

Months passed and nothing happened. I later discovered that the minister’s ‘boss’, himself a lawyer, had not the slightest interest in granting amnesty to anyone. Once convicted, there was no going back. Of course, the ‘boss’s’ stance made a mockery of the Mercy Commission, which functioned, like many a commission in this litigious society, in name only, with no results to justify its existence. Sadly, despite submissions to the Mercy Commission by inmates, no applications ever completed the course from inmate to Commission. I personally spoke to Commission members who steadfastly denied having received any requests for mercy; they simply disappeared en route.

The Board of Visiting Justices was yet another committee that I served upon. The correctional officers at Bordelais have, on occasion, been severely critical of my role; one of the many accusations they have thrown at me was that I ‘only’ represented the inmates and not the officers. The truth is that we tried to hold discussions with the Minister of Home Affairs to present the grievances of the officers, only to be met with a refusal to negotiate because the Ministry refused to recognize the Board as a negotiating partner. The Ministry’s motivation, which we reluctantly accepted, was that the prison officers had their own association to plead their case.

I was appointed to the Parole Board, an institution that was even more farcical. The initial meeting was held at the Ministry; the Minister presided; many flowery statements were made, and there was even a mild sense of mission pervading the atmosphere until the Chairman of the Board, a lawyer and former judge who had every reason to believe that all sentences handed down were just and fair, announced that he doubted that there would be more than a handful of cases to be reviewed and certainly no more than one, perhaps two cases that might lead to parole each year. We may, at most, have held one more meeting in the two years that followed our appointment, but no cases were ever reviewed by the Board and certainly no inmates were ever paroled. Again, it was not politically expedient to grant parole; the general public would not approve, we were told.

The point of all these Committees and Boards seemed simply to fulfill a requirement: these Boards had to exist; perhaps the Constitution required their existence, but there was, apparently, no obligation for anything to actually come out of their deliberations, if indeed, deliberations ever took place.

That, in a nutshell, is Saint Lucian bureaucracy: all form and no substance.

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