Guard­ing the Guards

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the pur­pose of these ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

Have I told you the one about the fox be­ing in charge of the chicken coop? Prob­a­bly not, well, maybe, but I’m not even sure you’d ap­pre­ci­ate the point. It seems to be such a reg­u­lar thing in Saint Lu­cia, hav­ing foxes take care of chicks, I mean, that it al­most seems the proper way of go­ing about things.

Take lawyers and judges, for ex­am­ple. I mean, what could be wrong with hav­ing a judge, a former judge, or even a lawyer, be­ing put in charge of, say, the Mercy Com­mis­sion or the Pa­role Board? At first glance, noth­ing, I sup­pose; but when you think about it for a while, you might come to the con­clu­sion that ev­ery­thing about such an ap­point­ment might be wrong.

Many years ago, when I was en­gaged fairly in­tensely in the prison sys­tem, there was quite a lot of con­fu­sion with re­gard to the Mercy Com­mis­sion and its work­ings. In­mates at the prison, es­pe­cially around Christ­mas and the New Year, were gal­va­nized into writ­ing long let­ters ask­ing for mercy as they be­lieved that at those times of love, joy and com­pas­sion sev­eral of them would be granted mercy and set free.

Nat­u­rally enough, with lead­ers who, to a large ex­tent were lawyers, any hint that jus­tice might not have been served, or that sen­tences were harsher than a crime mer­ited, was anath­ema. It was sim­ply un­think­able that a mag­is­trate or a judge could have ruled un­fairly. I mean, that’s what lawyers be­lieve; for them it is an ar­ti­cle of faith: the law might be wrong, but un­til it is changed, the law is in­vi­o­late and just and those sen­tenced sim­ply have to suf­fer their fate.

I re­call spend­ing an in­or­di­nate length of time in the of­fice of a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter whose job it was to ‘run’ the Mercy Com­mis­sion—the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral was the tit­u­lar head of the com­mis­sion but had no real power—plead­ing the cases of two in­mates who, I thought, de­served clemency, The min­is­ter closed our dis­cus­sions with the as­sur­ance that I should leave it to him and all would be well. He was well ac­quainted with the cases.

Months passed and noth­ing hap­pened. I later dis­cov­ered that the min­is­ter’s ‘boss’, him­self a lawyer, had not the slight­est in­ter­est in grant­ing amnesty to any­one. Once con­victed, there was no go­ing back. Of course, the ‘boss’s’ stance made a mock­ery of the Mercy Com­mis­sion, which func­tioned, like many a com­mis­sion in this liti­gious so­ci­ety, in name only, with no re­sults to jus­tify its ex­is­tence. Sadly, de­spite sub­mis­sions to the Mercy Com­mis­sion by in­mates, no ap­pli­ca­tions ever com­pleted the course from in­mate to Com­mis­sion. I per­son­ally spoke to Com­mis­sion mem­bers who stead­fastly de­nied hav­ing re­ceived any re­quests for mercy; they sim­ply dis­ap­peared en route.

The Board of Vis­it­ing Jus­tices was yet another com­mit­tee that I served upon. The cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers at Borde­lais have, on oc­ca­sion, been se­verely crit­i­cal of my role; one of the many ac­cu­sa­tions they have thrown at me was that I ‘only’ rep­re­sented the in­mates and not the of­fi­cers. The truth is that we tried to hold dis­cus­sions with the Min­is­ter of Home Af­fairs to present the griev­ances of the of­fi­cers, only to be met with a re­fusal to ne­go­ti­ate be­cause the Min­istry re­fused to rec­og­nize the Board as a ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner. The Min­istry’s mo­ti­va­tion, which we re­luc­tantly ac­cepted, was that the prison of­fi­cers had their own as­so­ci­a­tion to plead their case.

I was ap­pointed to the Pa­role Board, an in­sti­tu­tion that was even more far­ci­cal. The ini­tial meet­ing was held at the Min­istry; the Min­is­ter presided; many flowery state­ments were made, and there was even a mild sense of mis­sion per­vad­ing the at­mos­phere un­til the Chair­man of the Board, a lawyer and former judge who had ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that all sen­tences handed down were just and fair, an­nounced that he doubted that there would be more than a hand­ful of cases to be re­viewed and cer­tainly no more than one, per­haps two cases, that might lead to pa­role each year. We may, at most, have held one more meet­ing in the two years that fol­lowed our ap­point­ment, but no cases were ever re­viewed by the Board and cer­tainly no in­mates were ever paroled. Again, it was not po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent to grant pa­role; the gen­eral pub­lic would not ap­prove, we were told.

The point of all these com­mit­tees and boards seemed sim­ply to ful­fill a re­quire­ment: these boards had to ex­ist; per­haps the con­sti­tu­tion re­quired their ex­is­tence, but there was, ap­par­ently, no obli­ga­tion for any­thing to ac­tu­ally come out of their de­lib­er­a­tions, if in­deed, de­lib­er­a­tions ever took place. That, in a nut­shell, is Saint Lu­cian bu­reau­cracy: all form and no sub­stance.

First pub­lished May 17, 2014.

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