PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – The head of the local Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Joseph Harris, is leading a petition seeking to “free” remand prisoners who have been behind bars longer than the maximum prison term they would have gotten if they had been found guilty of their crimes.
The petition, circulated to priests and parish administrators across the country recently, aims to attract sufficient signatures to trigger mercy for hundreds of prisoners, particularly those charged with minor offences.
A remand prisoner is one who has been charged with an offence but is awaiting trial. Many were granted bail but are unable to meet the requirements to leave jail.
This year has been declared the Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis and it is in this context that Harris is seeking presidential pardons for some incarcerated on remand.
In a letter sent to priests and parish administrators dated April 7, Harris informed his clergy that he had written to the government with the request and asked that the priests read a letter which he sent to the congregation to “sensitise their parishioners about this cause.”
He also asked that parishioners sign forms “endorsing this petition and return them to Archbishop’s House between Pentecost and Corpus Christi.” That is between May 15 and May 26.
The letter was read out in some Catholic churches and parishioners were asked to sign the petition as they were leaving. But the response was “mixed.” Some parishioners said they needed time to “think about what was being asked of them.”
But many others were in support of the initiative, expressing the view that it was only right that we be “merciful” to those in need of it.
Harris argues that by “no fault of their own” these young men and women would have already spent significantly more time than the sentence imposed, and in this year of mercy he believes that having already served their time once the sentence is passed they should be allowed to go free.
Former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj said the country is on the “verge of having a broken criminal justice system.”
Maharaj said it is unacceptable that people are in prison charged for bailable offences but are unable to get bail because they come from “families who live below the poverty line and cannot afford it.”
There are 2,235 people on remand, just over 60% of the prison population which stands at over 3,400.