The recent shooting of Junior Duncan at the Bordelais Correctional Facility (BCF) and the abrupt escape of Kevin Richardson from the St. Jude Hospital led the STAR to the grounds of the prison this week seeking a more in-depth look at the facility that houses some 500 inmates every month.
Sometimes when “bringing the truth to light” the aim is to get a thought-provoking, definitive story that answers demanding questions from the public. In this case, to be caught between Saint Lucian people wondering why a prisoner should be shot and the place where it actually happened was quite a revealing experience.
“We don’t call them prisoners, we call them inmates,” was a correction that I heard prison director, Verne Garde, say to one of the correction officers. It was the first realization I had; they all must be trying their hardest to serve this country in a way the majority of us would not. That morning I didn’t even want to visit the prison. Secondly, I had to remind myself that Bordelais isn’t just a prison, but a correctional facility where criminals and others accused of crimes are sent, to be isolated from the rest of the world, yes, but also to be rehabilitated.
Whilst being guided around the prison, inmates who were more joyous and obedient than I had expected, politely greeted me. The prison director introduced me, and explained that I was the person to inform if anything was wrong. “If we beating you, treating you bad, you can tell her,” he said many times. Yet not a single complaint made its way to my ears.
There were also prisoners closer to what I’d preconceived. They sat dreary in their cell, looking depressed or outright angry. To one of them the director said, “Smile man! Be happy. You just have one life,” to which the inmate replied, “Be happy in jail, sir?” It was saddening to hear, and those were the inmates who I observed painstakingly.
I met Junior Duncan, he who was shot by a prison guard on June 28th, 2017. He was dressed in yellow, the uniform to signify inmates who are highly dangerous, and he belongs to the Delta unit, also known as maximum security. Duncan had an answer to everything that was said to him, much unlike the other inmates around him.
According to Garde, the prison has two or three incidents a day when inmates break or attempt to break the rules of the facility. Each incident is recorded as a report for which every witness is required to make a statement, including prison guards and inmates. The prison director then needs to read through every report and apply the necessary punishment as allowed by the law. “The first thing we do if they misbehave is to revisit the induction process,” said Garde. Induction is a period of time when inmates are taught the rules to be followed at BCF. To keep inmates in line with the rules of the facility, correctional officers are allowed to apply force depending on the amount of resistance from the inmate.
The altercation with Junior Duncan was not much different from those that happen everyday. However, according to prison officials, in this case the inmates in the maximum-security unit had armed themselves with makeshift weapons and attacked prison guards when they tried to confiscate the weapons. Pepper spray did not help to temper the situation, “As a result they had to use lethal force,” was the statement used by the BCF’s public relations officer when he spoke about the situation. One shot was fired which was absorbed by Junior Duncan’s shoulder.
There was something else for me to learn from the maximum security unit. You could imagine my surprise when I walked though the prison and someone was shouting my name. One of my classmates from primary school caught my attention. We always exchanged pleasantries when we saw each other on the streets so there was no reason to behave differently in Bordelais, although we weren’t allowed to speak for too long. But it was a shock to realize the different paths that lives could take. I was watching someone who sat next to me in Grade Six, but this time behind bars, most likely for murder, as the director assured me 28 of them were detained for. Then again, Christal St. Omer was sitting on my other side in that same Grade Six class, and she was murdered five years ago.
My tour continued and I encountered the other inmate I had questions about, Kevin Richardson. He attempted suicide on July 6, 2017 by jumping from the highest floor of one of the prison’s residential units and needed to be transported to the St. Jude Hospital. There he attempted to escape but was caught within the hour. Kevin Richardson now occupies a cell on a ground floor. Junior Duncan had also attempted suicide by trying to overdose on his medication for the wound. It seemed like two significant instances. However, Garde assured, “A lot of the inmates are suicidal. In fact about 68 of them have mental illnesses,” and in response to my queries, “They all get the help they need; every other Monday psychiatric visits are scheduled . . . In the rehabilitation process every inmate is evaluated and treated.”
I recalled a short meeting I’d had prior to my Bordelais visit with a past inmate of BCF: “When you’re there you have to depend on warders for everything and most don’t want to attend to you,” he’d said at the time. “I remember a time a next man had an asthma attack and I was shouting the officer and she taking her cool time to walk upstairs.”
However, when I visited the prison and one inmate was complaining about a painful leg, he was escorted to the medical unit where Garde said to me, “It doesn’t matter if it seems like a small issue, we have to attend to them.”
Garde also spoke about a reform in the prison since he took office about two and a half years ago. He was unaware of my conversations with ex-prisoners and the times I came and wasn’t allowed to hug my own family during half-hour visits. He explained that the procedures are far more enforced now but the well-behaved inmates are allowed to touch their families during visits. The rehabilitation resources are extended to both sentenced and remanded inmates for their use and Garde was ecstatic to show me their library, woodwork class, sewing room and the area where inmate and prison guard footballers compete. We intruded into an agriculture class as part of my tour, where four of the students were actually poets, one of whom recited to me a poem entitled ‘A Woman’s Worth’.
It’s easy for us to take for granted being protected from harmful criminals by authorities, and to throw blame at the slightest slip-up. But the work is taxing, physically and emotionally. What had the most humanistic appeal to me, and reiterated my realization of prison officials trying their best, was the fact that the director and all the guards knew the names of all the inmates. There are a little over 500, and each Friday between 11 and 25 new ones are admitted to the prison, and some are discharged. Every Wednesday, Garde meets with any inmate who has requested to meet. “Sometimes I don’t finish until midnight,” he said.
I thought of a quote I’d heard from STAR publisher Rick Wayne during his lecture at the Laureate’s Chair: “Media does not lead the people, it reflects the people.” In this case the people are prisoners, prison guards, and the people of Saint Lucia. It was a luminous reminder that in everything we do, we are but humans, dealing with other humans.