Post 405.

Now facing one of the driest economic seasons in 25 years, we need revenue generation, but also strategies to conserve both state finances and the sustainability of our communities. Covid19 led to quick decision-making, in relation to virtual courts, that could save $80 million. It also led to timely and merciful release of prisoners. We can choose the right strategies. As always, it is a question of political will.

Prison reform is one of those strategies, and there are decades of good recommendations to implement. Incarceration is costly to both governments and GDP, but it also costs families and communities of those who are never able to rehabilitate their lives, heal from childhood or family trauma that put them at risk of criminality in the first place, get drug treatment, safely escape the risks posed by gangs, or find legal decent employment.

As old slave colonies, Caribbean countries made early investments in prisons. Indeed, for enslaved and indentured workers, plantations were prisons. As a recent regional Caribbean report, “Survey of Individuals Deprived of their Liberty: Caribbean 2016-2019” (IDB 2020), outlines, it is therefore not surprising that, today, “six of the 15 countries with the highest incarceration rates worldwide are Caribbean islands.”

This includes The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, and TT. Yet, incarceration has not made us safe. The Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica, and TT “all have homicide rates more than three times the global average.”

Notoriously, our prisons also have high numbers (between 23 per cent and 50 per cent) of non-convicted people who may be first-time offenders or committed for non-violent or petty drug offences. If you have ever known anyone on remand, there are no social programmes, goods which must be bought at the prison are expensive for families, violent and non-violent offenders may be housed together, and court delays mock the right to justice on time.

In fact, prisons are hardly part of producing greater justice at all. The majority of those imprisoned are poor men with unemployment rates higher than the general population. They have been failed by unhealthy but dominant masculine ideals, by schools which they leave with lower rates of literacy and fewer livelihood skills, and by nations that accept class and race inequalities, and their harms, as the status quo. It is no coincidence that jails are full of poor people rotating in and out of hell.

Disturbingly, family problems – from domestic violence to a need to look for work during adolescence, abandonment or separation of families or being expelled from home – were key issues that prisoners had in common. As the IDB report emphasised, “Inmates who grew up in deprived settings – characterised by family violence, drug and alcohol abuse by parents or caregivers, incarceration of family members, early separation from their household, and criminal gangs in the neighbourhood – were more likely to commit a crime and showed higher levels of recidivism.”

It is so serious that “41 per cent of inmates surveyed in the six Caribbean countries were recidivists” and “40 per cent of prisoners that recidivated were imprisoned within a year of their release. In Guyana, Barbados, Suriname, and The Bahamas, roughly a quarter lost their freedom again in less than six months.”

This is a direct outcome of insufficient prison rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, pre- and post-release support, incentives for employers, and programmes that keep prisoners connected to families. Most incarcerated people have children, and children with incarcerated family are at higher risk themselves. In four countries, Barbados, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and TT, such cyclical incarceration began with juvenile detention. If we can protect adolescents from risk of criminality, and even adolescent ownership of firearms, and adopt non-carceral solutions, we can stop the cycle.

This requires investment in prevention in at-risk communities, which is also less costly and more humane than the social damage, and police suppression, of crime and violence. It also requires that we recognise how the violence and overcrowding among inmates create further conditions for violence, as men adopt hyper-masculine identities to survive, ally with gangs for protection and then are indebted upon release, and return to their families with anger, mental ill-health, and experiences of violation.

We must ask ourselves whether we value punishment, like the plantation whip, so much that we will continue an approach that increases incarceration and crime, or whether we will do whatever it takes to make our small societies safer, more just, more peaceful and more loving at this difficult time. Read the report. It’s clear what we ought to do.

Post 205.

Last Friday, the University of Guyana finally launched its own Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies.

Working at a gender institute myself, I could anticipate its limitations and opportunities. There is only so much small staff with activist passions, but with priorities of teaching and research, can do in a society with big gender problems. However, such an irreplaceable space also provides the kinds of consciousness-raising, mentorship, and commitment to women’s rights and progressive men’s movements that our societies surely need.

Having once joined at the beginning of a graduate programme that changed my own life, it was a reflective moment to be in Guyana, almost twenty years older, and hoping that as many students as possible will have the empowering experience I did.

I felt the same respect and awe for the work ahead as I got to know Renuka Beharie, coordinator of the fledgling Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname. She did not even have a full time secretary, but, after many hours and much sacrifice, I could only imagine how many would think of her the way I do about the pioneers in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and beyond who similarly built the gender studies institutes that generations of us will inherit.

Sometimes people wonder about the point of spending money to travel to events that seem to achieve little or signal only an uphill battle, but I was struck by the sense of regionalism sparked each time we meet up and connect to our work across borders and seas.

I had heard Hazel Brown talk many times about wanting the government to establish a Commission for Women and Gender Equality, and found a 2010 pre-election newspaper clipping where the PM promised she would. Yet, it felt so much more real when I met the commissioners in Guyana, who continued to hope to bring women together across party lines, who were pushing the government to approve a national gender policy, and who spoke openly about the fact that the new government’s appointment of only 30% of women to state boards, with some boards having no women at all, wasn’t good enough.

On the flight there, I sat next to a young woman, twenty years younger than me, who was so passionate about her work with the Trinidad Youth Council, and who said all the right things about good organizing, that my heart lifted, and I self-consciously felt myself filling the shoes of those older activists who go to civic meetings and talk about how nice it is to see all the young people there.

Having been nurtured by a progessive youth movement, and seeing how many from there continue to exercise leadership however we can, I was certain of the passionate possibilities for a young woman interested in social change, the guidance available, and the power of her oncoming experiences.

As we talked, it turned out she had never heard of this person, Hazel Brown, something I didn’t think was possible for any activist, youth or not, in T and T. Here was a wake up call for women’s and youth movements, a reminder we must make an extra effort to reintroduce every generation, especially of young women, especially of activists, to the makers of our too-quickly forgotten history. I wondered if you asked fifth form students around the country to name one women’s rights activist, who they would name, and if no one, why.  What would that say about the value of such women’s work in our country?

I invited the young woman to an evening gathering of NGOs, hoping that being in the room with women like Vanda Radzik, Jocelyne Dow, Karen de Souza and other Guyanese stalwarts in the struggle for Caribbean women would in turn spark her connection to Caribbean feminism’s regionality.

That one day in Guyana rested on my mind throughout my first class at UWI this week. How did you end up here I asked? Students wanted to understand feminisms, their rights, themselves and power relations in their families. Gender studies institutes were founded, and continue to be, to provide precisely the knowledge that each generation, discovering injustice, finds that they need.