Features — 10 February 2012 — by Aaron Humes
The Museum of Belize was inaugurated in 2002 and turned 10 this past Sunday, February 5. There is a full schedule of activities planned, and Belizeans can take advantage of the opportunity to tour the building, once the site of Her Majesty’s Prison from 1857 to 1993, when the current structure at Hattieville (now privatized) was established.
On Tuesday night, February 7, a small coterie of interested Belizeans, including this reporter, voluntarily walked behind the former prison walls to listen to tales of yesteryear told skillfully and spellbindingly by former Superintendent of Prisons, Bernard Adolphus.
Adolphus served as a senior policeman and officer in the Belize Defence Force before taking over the prison in the early 1980’s, a position from which he retired at its privatization in the early 2000’s. He has seen, heard, and done it all, and last night lectured on the origins, history and secrets of a building that has withstood two major hurricanes and fires in 1982 and 1993.
Her Majesty’s Prison was started in 1854 with convict labor and opened in 1857, a formal replacement for a wooden structure at the present site of First Caribbean International Bank in downtown Belize City, at Albert and Church Streets. (According to Adolphus, other holding cells were in place in the Supreme Court yard, behind Price Premier Products, formerly Macmillan Brothers, and behind the former offices and studio of Great Belize Television, Channel 5, all on Regent Street.)
It was “hard bread, hard labour [and] hard bed” for the occupants of the new jail, subjected to a strict regime from sun-up to sun-down in the forbidding structure commonly termed “Back-A-Baptist,” in reference to its location behind what is now the Queen Street Baptist Church and School. The local Baptist mission had previously owned the 1-acre property, and part of it was given over to the Public Works Department and later the Central Bank.
The 89 used cells of the 102 built in the structure (the remainder serving as offices, a library, padded cell etc.), housed the most infamous and dangerous criminals to walk the Belizean land – as well as some who Adolphus believes may not have deserved the harsh life meted out to them because of their circumstances.
Her Majesty’s Prison also witnessed as many as 18 recorded executions of persons convicted of murder. The records that Adolphus has go back to the 1930’s, stretch through the 50’s with the likes of John Aldana and Marcus O’Brien, and go up to the last person hanged in Belize, 18-year-old Kent Bowers, in 1985. The execution of the only woman to face death for murder in recorded Belizean history, Nora Parham, took place here in 1963 (but Adolphus denied that she was pregnant at the time, as other accounts have stated, as that is a condition that would ordinarily halt execution.)
Adolphus stated plainly that he did not believe that Bowers would be executed today because of “the real story” behind the killing of Robert Codd in 1984 and the need of authorities to find a scapegoat for execution because of the rising crime rate at the time, but because of the victim’s position in society and certain other factors he declined to go into great detail.
The prison focused on rehabilitating prisoners by taking away their comforts. Food was mostly Spartan – bread and tea or coffee at breakfast and dinner time, while lunch was usually stewed beans, white rice and fish, with rice and beans on Sundays. Then as now, there was drug smuggling, “bora”-making and other illegal activity going on, which the dedicated prison officers did their best to stamp out.
Among the primary differences between then and now, says Adolphus, was that the prisoners were put to work, meaningfully. They would march, shackled, through the downtown on route to their assigned workstations at the Government Printer, Government House and elsewhere. One was even assigned to take care of the horse of Minister responsible for Prisons, the late David McKoy, a horseracing enthusiast, until he was relieved of his duties after stealing the horse’s ration of oats for himself on the excuse of hunger.
Satellite camps were maintained at Gracie Rock, Belize District, and at the Lynam (ANRI) campus grounds in Stann Creek, the latter for first offenders until a change of the laws in the early 1980’s. Adolphus recalled that despite their difficulties and backgrounds, many of the men in his care were talented and showed a willingness to reform their habits. For those lacking in education, special programs were instituted, often under the care of ‘trustee’ prisoners. For those who, on the other hand, refused to behave, there was the dreaded “cat-o-nine-tails” or tambran whip to keep them in line.
Adolphus regaled the audience with stories of “Passam,” the habitual escaper who had a ball and chain tied to his leg to restrict his movements; one Edgar Maradiaga, aka “Papaito,” jailed at Her Majesty’s pleasure for a gruesome assault on a priest after being found insane; the prisoner who kept escaping and getting caught looking for food, so prison officials gave him as much as he wanted on a large pigtail bucket cover; two characters who “played dead” in the morgue while on the run from prison officers and police at the old City Hospital on Eve Street, around the corner; the father and son, Clarence and Daniel Gentle, who were on death row at the same time for crimes committed separately in different parts of the country (though only Daniel was eventually executed); the big men in charge, including former technical advisor John Ross and former Superintendent and Adolphus’s mentor, Philip Campbell (deceased); among countless others.
The emphasis, Adolphus concluded, was on discipline and performance on the job, and on keeping law and order, a task at which Belize has lost ground over the years. He wanted young Belizeans who believe that the current system is “soft” and easy on them to know that they will pay the consequences for their actions in one way or another, and called on society to restore that sense of discipline that existed in olden days.
Activities at the Museum continue for the next week and a half, with various presentations culminating in the display of the Jade Head at the Museum grounds on February 15.