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DAAGA: A PRISON MEMOIR by Michael "Bro. Scobie" Joseph

posted 10 Aug 2016, 09:47 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 10 Aug 2016, 14:13 ]

Michael Joseph (Brother Scobie) is the Public Relations Officer of Pan Trinbago  and President of the Southern Marines Steelband Foundation.

He is a former member of the General Council of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union and was detained by the PNM government during the 1971-72 state of emergency for his trade union and revolutionary activities.

The passing of Chief Servant Makandal Daaga brought back some very
fond memories of our times spent together incarcerated for nine months in the Royal Gaol, at #103 Frederick Street, Port of Spain, between 11th October 1971 and 16th June 1972 during the course of the second state of emergency in less than two years.

We, as political detainees, had to confront the prison authorities on a number of occasions, in defence of the rights and privileges which separated us from the regular prison population and which we had no intention of relinquishing without a battle.

There were sixteen of us whom the government of the day thought it necessary to detain for, as they say, "creating ill will and disaffection amongst the masses". There was a group of powerful national figures among us but, the man Makandal seemed to command the respect of all. He was the de facto leader.

During our stay, we were able to influence a lot of changes to some prison conditions. Daaga, under the banner of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), contributed to major changes in the political landscape, affecting in a positive way the consciousness and awareness of all the peoples of Trinidad and Tobago and by extension, the English speaking Caribbean.

He was quite an eloquent and influential orator, who I believe, could have, in those days, sold ice to Eskimos. Outside of his influence over the masses of young people on the streets in those hectic days of the so-called Black Power revolution, l had a firsthand experience seeing him in his element during the development of a precarious situation one day at the Gaol on Frederick Street.

A confrontational situation between the authorities and us had caused us to dismantle our beds, small tables, and all other items found on our block including plants. We took them out the cells, and threw them outside in the yard. We believed the situation was serious enough, and warranted strong action by us to send the message that we would not compromise our position in any way.

The next morning when we came outside the place was clear, everything thing was removed. Everything, the long bench and tables where we would sit and eat; everything was moved out and one could feel the tension in the atmosphere. Soon information came to us that the prison authorities intended to come down on us with full force, in order to show us who was boss and who ran things inside, in spite of our status.

We were told that the officers who worked the earlier shift were not released, but were being held back to join and strengthen the evening shift, so that they would subdue and teach us the lesson that all prisoners know and understand.

They had already subdued the mutinous soldiers who were incarcerated on the other side of the Gaol awaiting trial for mutiny. Who the hell these fifteen civilians think they are, to be giving all this trouble? (Jack 'the Red' Kelshall, who was one of the original sixteen, was already released due to failing health, and was then under house arrest). ‘

Some time after three in the afternoon, while we were breezing in the yard, the gate opened, (this is the only entrance to and from our area and it is situated between the condemned area which we occupied, and the Remand Yard) and in marched a battalion of about thirty grim looking prison officers with long menacing looking riot staves in their hands. They silently took up a position with their backs against the wall near the gate.

The majority of us became very agitated and started to look for anything that could be used as a weapon or defence against blows. The officers said nothing to anyone, but we could see that they just wanted to get it over with and go home. They were the ones who had worked the earlier shift, and were only awaiting the senior officer's orders.

However, while they stood there awaiting instructions, Daaga choose to address them on the social issues affecting the country; the present prison conditions and the adverse effects they were having on them and their working conditions which were not conducive to prison reform and prisoners’ rehabilitation, and the fact that our presence there was not on account of criminal activities, but on account of us seeking betterment for all.

Apparently, the senior officer took too much time to come and give the attack order. By the time he came in, he too realised that he should save face and not embarrass himself. Daaga had already subdued his troops with gunshot lyrics, and had he given the orders to attack us his men may have hesitated and may not have obeyed such instructions. We saw the effects even before he had entered. Daaga had saved the day and lives because we were prepared to die that fateful day. Thanks Daaga! Rest in Peace amongst the ancestors! The struggle continues! Power to the People!