Public Safety…Inside story: The problems of the Prison Service

Will there ever be an end to the Guyana Prison Service’s problems?

The murders of two more Georgetown Prison inmates in early February hardly made headline news. The incidents passed as part of a pattern of problems which have plagued the prison system for years but have never been dealt with decisively by the government.

Former Deputy Director of Prisons Poshanand describes the problems.

This time, the inmate Solomon Blackman − who was serving a sentence for murdering two policemen and wounding two others five years ago − was beaten to death by a mob of angry inmates in the Georgetown Prison’s ‘capital dormitory’ minutes after he had murdered a fellow inmate, Dawan ‘Dyal’ Singh. There have been other killings from time to time.

Irate inmates no longer clamber onto the prison roof as they used to do occasionally since 1993. Their aim then was to protest being held in remand without trial for months and to attract the media’s attention in order to advertise their grievances with the administration. The problems persist, even though there are fewer protests.

Reports galore

The Ministry of Home Affairs is fully aware of the plethora of problems in the prison system. As with the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Fire Service, the Guyana Prison Service has been the subject of several foreign and local reports which made recommendations for reform. A British team − comprising 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 − presented its  Prison Reform Report to then Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj since July 2001.

The Report − which was the result of investigations and consultations conducted over an 18-month period − read like a template for recommendations for reform over the past decade. Its main findings were that the criminal justice system did not offer adequate alternatives to incarceration; conditions for both staff and prisoners were awful; prisoners’ basic human rights were frequently infringed; the Georgetown Prison was seriously overcrowded and that there was minimal scope for constructive work to help prisoners to resettle in society.

The 30-page Report of Board of Inquiry into Escape of Five Prisoners from Georgetown Prison on February 23, 2002 which was presented to Gajraj in June by former Chancellor of the Judiciary Cecil Kennard who was Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry also made important recommendations for change. The Commission, among its other recommendations, stated explicitly that “The escape in our view could have been avoided if high-profile prisoners [had been] transferred to the Mazaruni Prison.”

Mazaruni Prison. Pleasant from afar.

The Guyana Prison Service itself, to its credit, produced its own substantial, ten-year 2001-2011 Strategic Development Plan based on a series of consultancy reports, retreats, workshops and visits. That initiative 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.

The Report of the Disciplined Services Commission which the Chairman Justice Ian Chang handed over to the Speaker of the National Assembly in May 2004 also examined prison conditions. 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.

The US 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. The Prison authority reported that there were 2,100 prisoners in five facilities, more than half of whom were in Georgetown’s [Camp Street] Prison, which was designed to hold 610 inmates but held 1,100. Overcrowding at the Camp Street Prison was in large part due to backlogs of pretrial detainees, which constituted approximately 60 percent of its total population.”

Without implementing the scores of recommendations of previous commissions, it would be a waste of time to convene new ones that are bound to restate old truths. But this is precisely what the Ministry of Home Affairs proceeded to do last year.

The Ministry commissioned yet another study the findings of which varied only slightly from those that have remained unimplemented for the last decade.  This most recent report on the Guyana Prison Service – released in November last year – was based on a review conducted by a team headed by Lloyd Nickram, Management Specialist within the Public Service Ministry. Predictably, it identified a number of problems within the system including long-standing concerns such as chronic overcrowding.

This latest 68-page Report addressed the issue of capability within the Service and pointed to the need for employment review policies to allow for only qualified persons to be hired and high performers to be promoted.  Nickram restated what has been known for years – the chronic issue of overcrowding in the prisons…is a direct result of a large number remands and convictions for petty crimes.”

The Administration, by any stretch of imagination, has to be well aware of both the problems in the system and the proposals for reform. But, if for no other reason, prison problems should be taken seriously because they have continued to get worse. The consequences of the escape of another gang of desperadoes, such as the country experienced in Mashramani 2002, would be too catastrophic to contemplate.

Problems galore

The 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. Their weak physical condition requires regular maintenance, the distances that separate them exhaust the Service’s meagre transport resources and supervision and security absorb scarce staff. These prisons, for which the Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible, seem doomed to remain an archipelago of the archaic unless they are substantially improved.

The prison population increases every year. There were over 2,000 inmates in January this year – 1,100 in the Georgetown Prison; about 390 including 80 women in New Amsterdam; 305 in Mazaruni; 170 in Lusignan and 100 in Timehri. Two out of every five prisoners are on remand.

The vast majority of  prisoners’ complaints are about the day-to-day realities of prison life – badly prepared meals; beatings by bullies; congested cells; filthy mattresses; intimidation by staff; poor health care and personal hygiene and lack of training, recreation and constructive activity. Other perennial problems – rotting infrastructure; delays in court procedures which result in large numbers of pre-trial or remand prisoners being held for long periods awaiting trial and shortage of supervisory staff which results in being locked down for excessive periods –  all fuel frustration.

As the prison population soared over the years, partly because of the magistrates’ propensity to sentence more minor offenders to prison terms and to overindulge the practice of remand, there has not been a commensurate improvement in the Prison Service’s infrastructure or an appropriate increase in its personnel.

This has been aggravated by the Service’s low rates of pay; inability to attract suitably qualified applicants; employment of a greater proportion of women in a largely male inmate population and resort to recruiting a large number of under-qualified ‘assistant’ prison officers.

The combination of low pay, long hours, dangerous work, a stressful setting and insufficient training is dangerous. In addition, some of today’s prisoners also tend  to be more truculent and violent. Some, like Soloman Blackman, are quite mad and should have been confined in a psychiatric hospital not let loose in a prison.

Georgetown and Mazaruni are the most problematic prisons. The Georgetown Prison, a huge museum occupying a city block, is old, overcrowded, unsafe and understaffed. It must be renovated, the large number of petty offenders who are handed custodial sentences must be reduced and the staff must be retrained and increased to deal with the inflated number of inmates.  There is also a cogent case for rehabilitating the ancient Mazaruni Prison to accommodate Georgetown’s high-risk, long-term convicts and for establishing a comprehensive programme of activities to occupy prisoners’ time beneficially.

The Mazaruni Prison, situated on the northern bank of the Mazaruni River and built in 1845 as a maximum-security prison, is ancient in appearance, insecure in structure, understaffed in management. This Prison was the scene of the country’s most destructive prison riot in August 1997 when four dormitories were burnt to the ground. The lessons of insufficient staffing seem not to have been learnt.

The Mazaruni Prison, if rehabilitated and expanded, could offer the best prospect not only for relieving the congestion at the Georgetown Prison but also for producing food through agriculture and for engaging prisoners in constructive activities as a form of training and rehabilitation.

Despite mounting evidence of the menace of murder and disorder, the Administration has not done enough over the past decade to correct the problems that plague the Prison Service.  Public funding for the strengthening of the country’s jails has been paltry, suggesting an interest in no more than stop-gap measures.

The Guyana Prison Service at present does not possess the personnel and resources to deal with the growing horde of desperate and dangerous inmates. Clement Rohee, nevertheless, has the opportunity to break the cycle of neglect by re-reading and implementing the recommendations of the several reports handed to his predecessor over the past decade.



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