I have written some strong words in my time, but these will be the strongest. I cannot tell whether I feel more anger than sadness, more regret than frustration, more desolation than despair; but this country is killing me, killing me softly, insidiously, despite the love I have for it.
For a time, several years actually, I volunteered my services at Bordelais teaching the inmates and doing what I could to change things for the better, to try to make a reality of rehabilitation myths. I made friends there. Some have been freed and done well; some have died; some have returned (not from the dead, but from freedom); some are still languishing. They keep in touch on a regular basis. I know what’s going on.
The prison has been without a functioning director for a couple of months at least, but nobody knows that. My ‘insiders’ tell me that Mr. Herman has not been seen for ages. Evidently, so say my ‘insiders’, his contract is up and has not been renewed.
The deputy director, Miss Alcide, is holding on as best she can, but is, according to inside gossip, not confirmed as acting director. The officers seem to have difficulty in accepting a strong woman as their boss and are on what is best described as a ‘go slow’, which makes life for the inmates even more unbearable.
Ever since Mr. Herman disappeared on vacation – the story is that he had to use it or lose it before his contract was up – life at Bordelais has gone steadily downhill despite Miss Alcide’s best efforts to hold things together in the face of a recalcitrant, divided workforce. Just last week, probably as a consequence of the disarray that rules the facility, rumors were rife that drug lords were once again planning an armed attack with assault weapons to free a couple of their top guys, just as the Venezuelans allegedly did a few years ago.
Even my ‘insiders’ wanted Mr. Herman back; nobody wanted to be caught in the middle of a hail of bullets. But the director did not return; maybe he was off island, maybe still on vacation, maybe he was still without a contract, maybe the Minister never even called him; who knows…
Whatever the case, the prison was shut down. Officers of dubious reliability were probably reassigned or simply not called in for duty; suspect prisoners-on-the-hit-list were segregated, and spread around the units; cell doors were locked and remained locked; six, eight, perhaps even more to a cell were confined in spaces little bigger than a transport van for days on end, eating, sleeping on concrete floors, and defecating together like one big family.
The shut down was so complete that even now, days later, there’s been no word from my ‘insiders’; the facility may still be on lock-down.
Actually, the funny side of all this – and even in St Lucia, there is a bright side to everything – the prison is so chock-a-block with illicit drugs that many of the guys will have felt little pain during the lock-down.
So what? You are thinking; these prisoners deserve what they get. So why, you might be thinking, is Walker making such a fuss about all this? Why is he filled with more anger than sadness, more regret than frustration, more desolation than despair? Why is this country killing him, killing him softly, insidiously, despite the love he has for it?
I’ll tell you why: Several years ago, my wife and I were working dedicatedly at the Boys’ Training Centre at Massade when we met a young boy there who had known no other life since he was 13 or so. When he turned 18, without a trial, he was sent to Bordelais, and would still be rotting there had we not intervened. We contacted Peter Foster, lawyer and now Speaker of the House to act on our behalf – perhaps more correctly on our boy’s behalf.
There was a court case. We won – and more or less gained another son. He worked at a hotel for a while, then the STAR newspaper, and finally he came to work with IETV and has become a quite proficient video editor. He edits and voices Creole programs. Next year, you’ll see him teaching Maths in Creole on television, which is quite an achievement for a BTC boy!
Perhaps it is the approaching festive season, but just this morning, we were chatting and I asked him where he felt he was with his life. He reached over and touched my arm and said. “Every night I think of where I would have been if you and Inger had not taken me into your life.” He sounded serious. “Where,” I asked, “would you have been?”
He turned to face me. “Dead,” he replied.
“Yes, dead. You know, Mike, all my friends are dead.”
We sat for a while and then we began to recount the names of the boys in his class at the BTC. We came up with 16 names in all, our boy and 15 others. One was doing ok; he had his music (I’m not sure what that meant, but I recalled he was always into music even at the BTC) One was
in trouble with the police; he had been charged with insulting an officer. One
was at Bordelais. That was four.
Twelve of the sixteen were dead. Twelve young men, barely out of their teens; twelve young lives I had known when we were ‘saving’ our boy; twelve of the sixteen were dead. Dead. Just dead.
“How?” I managed to ask.
“Seven by gangs maybe. Five, at least, by the police.”
‘The police?” He just shrugged.
If almost a whole ‘graduating class’ of boys from the BTC can be wiped off the earth in just a few short years, almost unnoticed, where is this society heading? If the island’s only criminally overcrowded correctional – don’t laugh – facility is in turmoil, what are we doing wrong?
Have we reached the stage of no return? Have we sunk as low as we can get? Is now the time to start the slow climb back to health and normalcy, or are there still even deeper depths to be discovered?
Unlike Johnny Cash, who hated every inch of San Quentin, I love you, St Lucia, every inch of you, but sometimes doing so is not easy.