It was a day like any other day for Peter “Ras Ipa” Isaac, president of the vendors association and a vendor at the Castries Vendors’ Arcade. It was Thursday February 6, 2014 and he had spent the day luring locals and visitors to his stall. It was a slow day. Never mind recent tourism figures indicating an increase in visitor arrivals for the first two months of 2014 compared to the same period last year. “The tourist are not spending like before,” Ipa says, his cries echoed by other vendors.
On that same day at about 6 pm as vendors were closing shop, some, including Ipa, having already done so, noticed a few late-shopping tourists came around. Eager to cash in on a possible windfall, Ipa approached the security to allow him to unlock his stall to get to his goods. Naturally he would also need the lockers open to get them back in. The security, according to Ipa, was uncooperative. An argument ensued between Ipa and the security guard, which, by Ipa’s own admittance, led to a few words in kind–make that expletives. Ipa also admits that things got really heated, particularly when the security said to him he would do the same thing over if Ipa was late to pack up at another time. It was at that point he told the security if he behaved in that manner again he would hit him.
Ras Ipa picks up the story: “So the following morning the security came with a police officer and the police looked all vex like somebody who had something against me already. So he came to me quarreling. He was in plain clothes and never identified himself. He started telling me things about put my stuff away early and things of that sort and that I should know better. So I told the police officer that’s not your job. You can’t tell me what to do. That’s the job of the City Council responsible for the arcade. If you come to me to warn me about a threat then do that.”
At that point the police officer went back to his parked vehicle and came back with an envelope in his hand.
“So he continued to raise his voice at me about the time I was closing up while waving this thing in my face. So I said ‘Officer, I will not hear you because what you are telling me there, that is not your business’ and I started waving my hand in the same manner as he was waving. He then asked me to put my hand down and I said I will not put my hand down until you put your hand down. So he stopped and I put my hand down.
At that point, the still unidentified officer walked back to his vehicle only to make a 180 degree turn. Approaching Ipa he said: “Well anyhow I am arresting you for assault!”
According to Ipa, he was then taken into the waiting police vehicle with two other policemen on board. The arresting officer alighted from the vehicle on lower Bridge Street and commanded the other officers to proceed and lock up their captive. The officers then took Ipa to Custody Suites, a place lodged between the old Majesty’s Prison and the Police Commissioner’s suite at Chesterfield. However, after being stripped of his shoes and other belongings, Ipa entered a place he describes as a chamber out of hell. “A torture chamber.”
“I was placed in a cell with four other men, well boys. As I was old enough to be some of their fathers,” Ipa related to the STAR. “There is very little ventilation and the place stinks of puke, piss, rat droppings, even human feces and God knows what else,” he says, a look of disgust on his face.
He continued: “It is just a cell with no bench or bed, just a cold dirty concrete floor to sleep on if you dare. We were fed some bread dirtied with a little butter and some dirty sweet water. Imagine when they came to us the police themselves wear gas masks so as not to inhale the fumes.”
After spending more than thirty hours in this “hellhole,” Ras Ipa says he was never charged, processed nor had to be granted bail. One officer, he says, admitted to him that he could have simply been cautioned over the matter. However the arresting officer, now unidentified as Constable Daniel, told him that he was too hyper. “But anyway you are released, if anything I know where to find you,” was all he said, according to Ipa.
Ras Ipa says the whole experience was very traumatic. He has decided to fight to have Custody Suites closed and is calling on persons who have suffered the same fate to join him in the matter to sue the Government, or simply have the facility shut down.
“My point is anyone can find themselves there. To think that you are not charged and some malicious police officer can use this seventy-two hour holding law to just keep you locked up in a place like that,” Ipa says. “A Suite is something that is like a penthouse, all the luxuries and amenities contained. There is nothing sweet about that suite I was in–that place is torture chamber and an incubator to breed hardened criminals.
“Young men who have committed minor offenses having gone through this ordeal end up hating the system and even the police,” Ipa says, his assessment based on conversations he had with the other three young prisoners.
So far Ras Ipa says he has received much backing for the cause after he announced to the media that he was putting up EC$1000 of his own money for the fight and was looking for others to support him. Custody Suites, he maintains, violate a person’s basic human rights, robs them of their dignity and should be closed down.
This is what the Royal Saint Lucia Police Force had to say about Custody Suites this week: “The Custody Suites serve a very important role as a temporary holding cell. The authorities are mindful of the issues and have been seeking to address them subject to the availability of resources.”
However, the Police Welfare Association is backing calls to have the situation at the suites addressed immediately or have it closed.