In the first hours of the morning of October 9, 2019, in the town of Arouca, located in the east-west corridor of Trinidad, the police raided the Ministry of Transformed Life complex – rehabilitation center for ex-prisoners and other socially displaced persons – and rescued many citizens who were locked in cages and allegedly tortured for several years.
The organization affirms that it offers “transitory accommodation, and development and rehabilitation programs”, which “promotes healthy reintegration into society” and promotes a philosophy of “strengthening and responsibility”.
The two months of investigation that led to the raid, allegedly in cooperation with the Trinidad and Tobago police service, revealed many questionable conditions, including the use of “confinement rooms” to contain violent occupants.
At the scene, the police arrested six people – including the founder of the rehabilitation center, Glen Awong, a former prisoner who became a pastor – and took them to the station for further inquiries. The rescued occupants were referred to health facilities for medical treatment. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith confirmed the use of paralyzing guns and rods at the scene.
Guardian Media, a company that owns the television network and the newspaper that made the news known, reports that Commissioner Griffith called the situation “one of the largest related to human trafficking” in the country. He also described the situation as “modern virtual slavery.”
The occupants remain in the place for a long time, often with the help of family members who pay monthly fees for these services. which on average reach 5000 dollars from Trinidad and Tobago per month (741 US dollars). Many occupants of the center, whose ages range between 19 and 70, suffer from mental illness and addiction.
Some complaints suggest that family visits were restricted and that staff closely monitored visits in common rooms. A worker said that the staff was “continuously warned and threatened not to talk about the operation.”
However, at least one supporter of the rehabilitation center maintains that the issue of proportion has been removed and that all restrictive measures were to “prevent the (inmates) from escaping.” The person also confirmed that the families “sign contracts and accept” that they had seen the facilities before making a decision to admit a loved one.
Some netizens even questioned that the commissioner would use the term “human trafficking” and “modern slavery” to describe the situation, since they say it is not entirely correct.
Pastor Awong has asked Commissioner Griffith to apologize. In any case, various threads of comments on the Facebook page of the Ministry of Transformed Life reveal skepticism about the way they operate.
Compliance or non-compliance?
In order for mental health organizations to receive state assistance, they must meet specific criteria, including an official registration with the State and be operational for at least one year while covering at least 40% of the costs.
Between 2010 and 2015, during the previous Popular Association regime, the Ministry of Transformed Life met the criteria for state assistance and received approximately 7.4 million dollars from Trinidad and Tobago (approximately 1.1 million US dollars). He received his last payment on August 6, 2015, before the government of the Popular National Movement assumed in September of that year.
In an interview on the i95 Radio morning show, the Minister of Social Development and Family Services, Cherrie-Ann Crichlow-Cockburn, said the new regime mentioned concerns about the facilities and withdrew financial support. But Crichlow-Cockburn also said that because it was a private facility, his ministry had no greater authority in the matter.
However, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said the Ministry of Transformed Life was making the necessary improvements to gain approval as a health care institution when the raid took place.
On July 1, the Mental Health Division of the country's Ministry of Health, together with the Northwest Regional Health Authority (NWRHA), made a visit and found that “seclusion rooms” were used to house violent clients and that During the visit, the team observed all occupants except one in “common meeting areas” without restrictions.
Pastor Awong insists that he is not a monster. He believes that the police search is linked to his court case – he has sued the State for an unpaid amount of $ 1.4 million from Trinidad and Tobago (US $ 207,511), which he claims is owed for the work the center did in a program of the Ministry of Social Development.
‘The mental health system is not broken… it was never complete’
The netizens quickly turned to Facebook to express their dismay at the state of the mental health service and what revealed the break-in on state care.
Activist Nazma Muller criticized how easy it was for the place to receive state support despite the lack of staff psychiatric training:
So, it is that easy to open a mental health care facility in this country? Sounds like something Terry (Terrence Deyalsingh) just made up. He admits he knew about the cages and apparently was just giving Pastor Awong some time to bring things up to mark… once Awong had followed the recommendations, Transformed Life would be transformed into an approved mental health facility… with nobody having any psychiatric training they were left in charge of these 69 people.
And Deyalsingh still has a job …
Well, how easy is it to open a mental health center in this country? It looks like something Terry (Terrence Deyalsingh) just invented. He admits that he knew about the cages and apparently he was just giving Pastor Awong some of the time to approve … once Awong had followed the recommendations, Transformed Life would become an approved mental health center … without anyone with training Some psychiatric, they were left in charge of these 69 people.
And Deyalsingh is still in the position …
Tisha Marajh commented:
Um..the cages didn’t call for a complete cessation? !! Are we THAT backward?
Um .. weren't the cages enough for a total closure? Are we SO late?
Varma Deyalsingh, secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of Trinidad and Tobago (APTT), said in a morning television program that he is aware of complaints and suicides of the rehabilitation center, which brings attention to the authorities' failure to supervise the facilities and the limited attention given to mental health problems.
Some suggested that Transformed Life was better than St. Ann, the state psychiatric hospital. On Facebook, user Sievan Siewsarran said:
Humans caged or placed in cells is inhumane. Humans that are mentally ill and have to be caged for their “own good” is sickening!
Trinidadians rallying behind a pastor / church / rehabilitation center saying ‘look at St Ann's’, have completely and utterly lost the point and fallen into the political and social scheme that is this scam.
Huges caged or put in cells is inhuman. Humans who are mentally ill and who have to be caged for their “own good” is disgusting!
The Trinidadians who support the pastor / church / rehabilitation center that say ‘look at St Ann’, have completely and absolutely lost the heart of all this and have fallen into the political and social argument that this is a scam.
A Facebook user posted first descriptions, “prison” conditions: a heavily screwed reception area, food served in ice cream containers, “horrendous” cages and the mercenary nature of the “pastor”:
… There is another story (here) about (our) broken our mental health system, about the choices we are faced with between a public mental health system that is far from adequate and private homes that are not regulated run by mercenaries.
… The mental health system is not broken because it was never whole. It is deeply flawed. However, when this news cycle goes past the next 24 hours of incredulity and maxi taxi talk, I hope to God we can begin to talk about mental health and how we provide for the most vulnerable in a very serious way.
… There is another story (here) about (our) mental health system, about the options we face between a public mental health system that is far from (having) adequate and private homes that are not regulated and run mercenaries.
… The mental health system is not broken because it was never complete. It has multiple failures. However, when this news cycle passes 24 hours in disbelief and nobody talks about it, I hope God can start talking about mental health and how we keep the most vulnerable in a very serious way.