JUST LIKE IT IS: Behind Col. Nurse
Lieutenant Colonel John Nurse, Superintendent of Prisons, made some comments last week about the attitude of Barbadians towards delinquents who have served their time and are re-entering society.
He made the undeniable point that our society is unforgiving to those who have transgressed and served their sentences, and should have access to the same creature comforts and basic necessities as members of the wider community. This would make their re-entry easier and chances of re-offending less likely. The argument is powerfully cogent.
I spent 15 years of my early life at the Government Industrial School at Dodds where my father and mother were staffers. I played cricket and football with the boys, often ate in the canteen and read the same books supplied by the public library. The experience inveterately influenced my world view.
I can speak therefore with first-hand experience and knowledge of the incarceration, post-custodial developments and society’s reaction to juvenile offenders. At the level of more mature offenders, society’s attitude, reaction and relationship were more severe.
Incarceration is not only punitive but also rehabilitative. On release, the offender is expected to not only have been brought to Christian understanding but to have developed an attitude to offending societal norms which will ensure that he does not become a repeat offender, but will contribute to society’s growth and development.
Society has a reciprocal responsibility to understand that every citizen, even those who may have offended at some time in their life, is not beyond redemption and, as Superintendent Nurse stressed, should be given a second chance.
Releasing an offender back into society without the wherewithal or enabling environment to fend for himself, is seriously disadvantageous and, combined with his record and societal hostility, he is likely to break the law again.
Juveniles who remained in Barbados included a well known, versatile singer and entertainer, a political activist, a parliamentary secretary, an outstanding boxer and a gentleman who honed his expertise abroad and became a master at The Lodge School, distinguished themselves, their early offences largely unknown to society at large.
Many boys who passed through the Government Industrial School have found their fortunes in foreign lands. Serving in the diplomatic service in London and New York, it was always a pleasure meeting men who visited me and reported their successes in their adopted countries. Their visits to Dodds while holidaying were also always a source of great pleasure and pride to my parents.
One of the best dinners I have had in my many years in London was in a restaurant as guest of a Dodds graduate. And on a visit to Toronto, I went into a major store and was stared down by a gentleman who identified himself as a departmental manager and invited me to a splendid lunch. He gave me wonderful gifts for my parents who told me that despite his early misfortune, they always knew that all he wanted was an opportunity.
The administration of justice for young people is not as harsh as it was in earlier times. I will never forget that a boy who went to steal limes at a Christ Church residence was caught by the householder, fled scaling the fence, getting only a handful of lime leaves. He was given five years. The householder, an Anglican priest, was christened “Lime Leaf”.
He became a master at Lodge where every teacher had a nickname. His was not known to the boys in my class which I volunteered as well as how he got it. A classmate was so incensed that he broke off the legs of the master’s chair and taped them back on before our scripture class.
“Lime Leaf” came in, sat heavily in the chair and went belly up to the amusement of the class. The perpetrator was surrendered to the headmaster when the whole class was threatened with a flogging. I wonder which was the more serious offence – stealing a few lime leaves or causing the collapse of the chair and possible harm to the priest?
I recall a survey my father carried out which revealed that 90 per cent of the boys in the school were from father-absent, overwhelmingly St Michael homes. It is universally acknowledged that absence of a strong male presence in a household invariably leads to a breakdown in discipline, fostering delinquency.
I hope that in these more humane times, the noble appeal of Superintendent Nurse to give offenders a second chance resonates across the nation and Barbadians become more forgiving, understanding that offenders who think their life chances are compromised beyond hope may revert to earlier lifestyles with which they feel most comfortable.
Our society needs to be welcoming to not only tourists but also to those who have transgressed our laws, been rehabilitated and re-entered society. Recidivism is not in the national interest.
• Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat.