PORT OF SPAIN (Reuters) – Dozens of people were found on Wednesday in squalid conditions, chained and in cages in a Trinidad and Tobago rehabilitation center run by a religious group for ex-prisoners and drug users, where some were tortured and held for years, police said.
Police said in a statement that 65 men and 4 women were rescued from a “modern-day slavery” operation at the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre in Arouca, 19 kilometers east of the capital Port of Spain. Six people at the compound were arrested.
Images taken from the Transformed Life Ministry, which were provided to Reuters by police, showed handcuffs hanging from beds and windowless cells more akin to dog kennels at a pound. The ministry was founded 19 years ago by a pastor, Glen Awong.
Police spokesman Wayne Mystar said all the people at the center were nationals of Trinidad and Tobago. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said the situation amounted to “human trafficking” and added that the people who were rescued stated that some of them had been imprisoned for years and been tortured.
The rescued men and women, some as young as 20 and others 60 or older, were taken to health facilities for medical treatment, the police said.
According to its website, Awong, while serving a seven-year term in prison, “answered the call from God and started his ministry within the prison walls.”
Awong and the center did not respond to requests for comment.
“Transformed Life Ministry’s mission is to serve male ex-prisoners and deportees, by providing safe transitional housing, developmental and rehabilitation program, to promote healthy reintegration into society,” the center says on the website.
But one person familiar with the center strongly disagreed with that description, saying a family member who had stayed there was mistreated.
“I am familiar with the place because my son was there for a few months. I felt like my son was treated as a prisoner and not a patient,” said Andrea De Silva, a photographer who has freelanced for Reuters on occasion.
She said that after her son tried to hang himself while at the center she was never contacted about the attempted suicide or even allowed to see him.
“We saw that Mickell was deteriorating and I decided to take him out,” De Silva said.
Reporting by Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Matthew Lewis