Guyana Prison Service: Let the citizens know who’s running the Show – By Yvonne Sam

— By Yvonne Sam

So much has gone wrong —For Far Too Long

The way in which societies treat individuals who have been deprived of their liberty is a litmus test of commitment to human rights. A wide range of international treaties and standards exist to guide prison services across the world. John Whitaker — Straw British M.P

Prisons play an essential role in society. They are crucial to human and public security.

After seeing the headlines about the Lusignan Prison riot, and on the point of allowing the words “Not Again” to hastily depart my lips and seek refuge or dispersal in the surrounding atmosphere, I was once again painfully reminded of the plethora of problems that have plagued the Guyana prison system on the whole.         

The Guyana Prison Service possesses three major prisons – at Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam. There is also a remand centre at Timehri and, recently, Lusignan was designated as a juvenile holding centre. 

As noted in its submission to the Disciplined Forces Commission (2004) the main responsibility of the Guyana Prison Service is “to ensure the safe custody of the offenders who have violated the law of the land and are placed in physical confinement (Prisons) in order to protect the society”. Given the history of prison recommendations emanating from inquiries and findings of divers commissions, it is plain to see that the Guyana government as a whole has eschewed its responsibilities to both the incarcerates and the free. Additionally, as a corrective facility the Guyana prison Service, is also tasked with the dual responsibility of protecting society by creating secure incarceration arrangements while simultaneously engaging in activities and initiatives to facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into the society.

As the background history is being told the truth it will gradually become clear why the prisoners behave as if they don’t care. Note that as regards blame my digits are being reserved for exercises of a more beneficial nature.

In July 2001 the then Minister of Home Affairs, now deceased Hon. Ronald Gajraj was presented a Prison Reform Report by a British team which comprised of  − Alastair Papps, Arthur de Frisching and Brian Fellowes from the International Consultancy Group of the British Government Cabinet Office Centre for Management and Policy Studies.  The report was the culmination of consultations and investigations conducted over an 18 month period. Among the main findings were that the criminal justice failed to provide adequate alternatives to incarceration; conditions for both staff and prisoners were awful; prisoners’ basic human rights were frequently infringed; Serious overcrowding of the Georgetown Prison with minimal scope  constructive work to help prisoners to resettle in society.

On February 23, 2002, five inmates: Dale Moore, Troy Dick, Shawn Brown, Andrew Douglas and Mark Fraser, escaped from the Georgetown prison, killing a prison officer and seriously wounding another in the process. The escapees then unleashed a reign of terror in Guyana. The 30-page Report of Board of Inquiry into Escape of Five Prisoners was presented to Honourable Gajraj in June by former Chancellor of the Judiciary Cecil Kennard who was Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry. Among its other recommendations the Commission specifically stated that “The escape in our view could have been avoided if high-profile prisoners [had been] transferred to the Mazaruni Prison.”

In May 2004, Chairman Justice Ian Chang handed over to Hari Ramkaran, Speaker of the National Assembly, The Report of the Disciplined Services Commission, which began work on July 1, 2003 to inquire into the Guyana Police Force, Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana Prison Service and the Guyana Fire Service in order to identify their shortcomings and to recommend remedies to respond to the public safety crisis.

The Report made 28 recommendations for improvements mainly to the Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam prisons. These included increasing the staff to deal with the growing number of inmates, implementing the recommendations of the Criminal Law Review Committee Report and improving the capacity of the Mazaruni Prison in order to reduce overcrowding – especially by high-risk prisoners – at the Georgetown Prison. Be it known that the decision to appoint a Disciplined Services Commission, DSC, was one of the first agreements between the Jagdeo Administration and the PNCR under the leadership of the Leader of the PNCR and Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Robert Corbin.

To its own credit, the Prison Service itself produced a significant 10 year (2001-2011) Strategic Development Plan based on a series of consultancy reports, retreats, workshops and visits. Such resourcefulness was followed by the Carter Center of the USA which, in another report presented to the Ministry in February 2002, called for the establishment of a Criminal Law Review Committee to examine existing laws, practices, and procedures for the criminal justice system including imprisonment.

In 2009 the U. S Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices last year confirmed that “Prison and jail conditions were poor and deteriorating, particularly in police holding cells. Capacity and resource constraints were a problem.

Yet another study was delegated in 2009 by the Ministry of Home Affairs, headed by  Lloyd Nickram, Management Specialist within the Public Service Ministry. The 68 page report released in November 2009 on the Guyana Prison Service identified a number of problems within the system including long-standing concerns such as chronic overcrowding. Basically, the study just repeated what was already known and had not been implemented.

In 2011,The Ministry of Home Affairs established a Board of Inquiry comprising of Major General (retired) Norman Mc Lean MSS- former Chief of Staff – Chairman; Mr. Cecil Kilkenny DSS -former Director of Prisons and Mr. Sheik Asween – Prison Trade Instructor, to investigate the breach that led to the escape of four dangerous prisoners, special watch inmates from the New Amsterdam Prison.

In September 2016 a comprehensive nationwide prison survey is expected to begin in Guyana in September with the aim of designing rehabilitation and social reintegration services for prison inmates. The survey was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank to the value of US$2.3 million through the Citizen Security Strengthening Programme (CSSP), with the aim being to capture information on the experiences of inmates’ lives prior to incarceration, during imprisonment, and those who are repeat offenders. The appraisal part of the third component of the CSSP’s five-year programme, reaffirmed the findings of previous studies.

In October 2017, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent advised Guyana that the Lusignan Prison should be closed down without delay.  According to the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in its 2018 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Guyana, “Prison and jail conditions, particularly in police holding cells, were reportedly harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions.

After a riot and fire at the Camp Street Prison on Thursday, March 3, 2016, by prisoners protesting living conditions, 17 prisoners died.

The current Minister of Public Works Hon. Juan Edghill has stated that in keeping with effective prison reform, and in the security plans for the country, $2B have been earmarked for construction, rehabilitation and upgrading of prisons and covered in Budget 2020. According to the Minister this area has been neglected by the previous administration.

So many Commissions, so many recommendations, so little consideration, so few implementations!

For far too long effective leadership has been a No Go and the inmates have clearly been running the show. Contrary to held belief, effective administration of a prison system calls for the possession and retention of high degrees of certain professional skills which are woefully lacking in the present prison system.

No necessity exists for blame gaming, as it is clear that the real fragility lies in the lacuna or interregnum between the pursuance of commission of inquiries and the implementation of the attendant recommendations. Without following the multiplicity of recommendations of previous commissions, it would be sheer futility top convene new ones that would only be restating already known and heard truths.

Now that the government does not the money lack, then there should be no turning back. Let the prisons be as secure as can be thereby guaranteeing the public safety.

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