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The walls of Carrera Prison

Published: 
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Eulick Bissessarsingh, grandfather of Angelo Bissessarsingh.

First published March 24, 2013 Last week, Justice Minister Christlyn Moore announced that this year will be the last one for the island prison of Carrera, which is slated to be closed permanently.

This draws the curtain on a chapter of local history few know. The rocky limestone islet perhaps was used as a temporary prison depot around 1854 when Superintendent of Prisons Daniel Hart lodged some convicts who were labouring on cutting a channel for small boats through Pointe Gourde. This waterway was named Hart’s Cut after its innovator sang his own praises and wrote:

“This is a Canal cut across the Isthmus of Chaguaramas 2,165 feet in length, 15 feet in width, and four feet deep from the banks. The cutting was suggested by Mr Daniel Hart, Superintendent of Prisons, approved of by the Governor, Sir Charles Elliot, KC, and ordered to be carried out under Mr Hart’s superintendence by means of convict labour.’

The work was completed on May 29, 1856…….. To the inhabitants of Chaguaramas, Monos, and Chacachacare, the cut is one of the greatest of boons that could have been conferred, obviating as it does, the necessity (as previously) of going round the dangerous passage by Point Gourde, a place where many people have lost their lives.”

In 1966 the canal which had served so many for so long was filled in and is now the carpark for prison officers on the island. In 1866 Carrera became a short-lived quarantine depot for Indian indentured labour before the facility moved to Nelson Island. Around 1875 convicts were set to work “bussin stone” to provide hard punishment and supply road metal to the Public Works Department.

This was done on a starvation diet of a few biscuits and tea twice daily and a midday pint of soup. It was the harshest form of incarceration for in those days: prisoners did not enjoy holidays at taxpayers’ expense as they now do, but were pressed into chain gangs for the maintenance of public infrastructure (cemeteries, road verges, etc) or else quarried on Carrera and its neighbour, Kronstadt Island.

In 1876 construction of a huge stone-walled prison complex was initiated and completed by 1880. Prisoners from a defunct convict timber depot in Longdenville and later, one in the Irois forest, were crowded into tiny cells. For many years the Superintendent of Prisons was Capt Percy Fraser, who implemented many changes and saw incarceration as both a stern process and one intended to reform and modify the character of the offender.

During World War I (1914-18), Carrera prisoners were used to erect a gun on Gaspar Grande Island, having to cut the roadway to the top of a steep hill and then dragging the massive weapon by hand all the way under the personal supervision of Capt Fraser and the governor of the colony himself, Sir John Chancellor. Towards the end of Percy Fraser’s administration in 1931 there was a prison riot, which saw the warders being held hostage until the situation was defused by the arrival of Fraser himself.

A Commission of Enquiry was appointed to look into the colony’s penal system and massive revisions implemented, including an expansion of the facilities on the island. Adult literacy classes, movie nights and trade school were some of the improvements but may have failed to make an impact on all, since one of the most infamous products of the system in this period was Boysie Singh, the pirate, gangster and murderer who paid for his crimes at the end of a hangman’s rope.

For all the upgrades to the system it must not be imagined that Carrera was paradise. There was once an epidemic of blindness among the Indian prisoners. Many were there for the crime of wife murder, which was prevalent at the period. Apparently, a rumour spread that blind prisoners would be released and repatriated to India, where there were native doctors who could restore their sight.

The blindness was achieved by catching crabs on the rocky shoreline and squeezing the toxic bile from their innards into the eyes, which caused rapid inflammation and loss of sight. On another occasion, a prisoner convicted of a sexual offence contrived to silently amputate his own testicles, which were later kept in alcohol in the prison infirmary as a curiosity.

At times Carrera could indeed be akin to the other famous island prison, Alcatraz, which seems to whisper Dante’s words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Yet among this there are positive stories, one of which is quite personal to me.

After leaving his father’s cocoa estate in Siparia to see service during World War II, 21-year-old Eulick Bissessarsingh became a prison officer in His Majesty’s service, being posted to facilities in the Bahamas and St Vincent before being stationed at Carrera Island, where he remained until 1954. Of his time on Trinidad’s Devil Island, Eulick always remarked that aside from the odd disturbance or two, jailbirds and warders shared a kinship, since the long furloughs of duty (sometimes lasting weeks) made them all prisoners.

This is not to say that the jail was a social club. Misdemeanours amongst the inmates were punished with solitary confinement in a cell reeking with sewage, floggings with the cat-o’-nine tails (a dreadful whip) and a single meal of bread and water daily. It is perhaps no surprise that on several occasions, prisoners dared swim the shark-infested channel separating the island from Chaguaramas in a desperate bid for freedom.

Amidst this terror was another young man, Rupert “Archie” Archibald, who, like Eulick, hailed from Siparia—his crime, murder. Archie, at age 14, lived under the shadow of abuse and being unable to see his stepfather brutalise his mother any longer, took up an axe and cleft the man’s skull.

Eulick and Archie fast became friends behind the ominous walls of Carrera. An accomplished artist, the prison warder passed on his skills to the inmate and also taught him to read and write. Eulick also interceded on Archie’s behalf in writing several times, understanding that Archie’s offence was a crime of necessity.

Eulick left the prison service in the 1950s and a couple of years after, Archie was granted his freedom and the two renewed their old friendship back in their hometown of Siparia. The ex-convict took on a new mantle as the Midnight Robber every Carnival in a most impressive form, his towering stature and expressive lyrics making him one of the past masters of ole mas. His elaborate costume was designed and constructed by Eulick.

Many years after his friend died in 1986, I remember Archie—then a very old man and nearly blind—tottering up the steep poui-lined driveway leading to our home. He would sit and regale us for hours with stories of Carrera and his life before, as well as the times he and Eulick, my grandfather, shared as friends.

Archie gave me a bay leaf tree which he asked me to plant in Eulick’s memory, which I did, in 1993, and it still thrives. Archie is dead now, ending a great friendship of seemingly impossible origins that began and lasted on Carrera Island.

Now that this historic place is about to be demobilised, it is my fervent hope as a historian that it will be preserved as a relic of our past and can serve as a beacon for tourism which has already proven to be a practical use for old island prisons at Alcatraz and Devil’s Island.