The fatal March 3, Camp Street prison unrest could have been avoided, according to retired judge Cecil Kennard, who says many of the recommendations made following the Com-mission of Inquiry (CoI) that he led into the 2002 prison jailbreak had addressed some of the contributing factors.
Kennard also lays blame for the overcrowding at the jail at the feet of members of the magistracy, whom he says have been remanding accused persons for long periods and imposing custodial sentences when non-custodial options are available.
On March 3, 17 prisoners were killed and several others were injured after a fire was started in the Capital A Section, where inmates had been lighting fires since the previous day to highlight the poor conditions in which they are being housed.
Some of the same issues raised by inmates had been addressed during the jailbreak CoI, which had produced a total of 41 recommendations. These included the recruitment of more staff in order to reduce the officer to prisoner ratio; the injection of new blood into the prison service, including the recruitment of members from the other disciplined services; the introduction of random searches of prison officers; and the placement of an x-ray scanner at the front gate.
It also addressed security improvements and matters relating to the training of prison staff. It spoke too about what appeared to be a friendly relationship between prisoners and prison officers.
Just recently, it was revealed that some inmates are active users of Facebook, which means they have access to smartphones, which are prohibited. One of the photographs posted on Facebook showed an inmate with dozens of small packets of what appeared to be marijuana.
There have been longstanding accusations that some prohibited items are smuggled into the prisons by prison officers.
Kennard, who is now the Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, recently told Stabroek News that while there must be a relationship between the inmates and the prison officers, it must never go beyond courtesy. “If you are overfriendly with them, they are going to ask you favours and you may be persuaded to grant favours by permitting them to have use of cell phones, narcotics and things like that,” he said, while adding that there is nothing wrong with being courteous and friendly but a line must be drawn.
He also recalled that it had been recommended in 2002 that the remuneration package of prison officers should be made more attractive in order to attract more qualified Prison Service recruits.
“If people are qualified… and being paid peanuts, they are not going to join the service. It’s the same thing we’re having with the police force. You have to make the package attractive so you can have suitable persons,” he stressed.
Kennard also believes a new prison is needed and this was what first came to his mind when he got the news of the fire. He said that he had visited the prison several times and it was clear that inmates “were living like animals.”
He added that sometimes juveniles are being mixed with seasoned criminals. “That is highly undesirable,” he said before adding that Georgetown Prison should be a remand centre and a new prison should be built to house those who have been convicted.
He was adamant that prisoners charged with different offences should not be housed together. “Contamination is bad for the soul. They may be mixed and ideas are being put into the first offender and they do wrong things,” he said, in response to the make-up of prisoners in Capital A, which had been housing persons committed and those on remand for several crimes including murder, armed robbery and ammunition possession.
Magistrates to blame for overcrowding
Kennard thinks that there is enough land to build a new facility and to make provisions for inmates to be gainfully occupied. Such is not available at the George-town facility, which is overcrowded. As it stands, the facility, which is supposed to house 600 inmates, has over 900 inmates. “For people to be locked away in a cell or in an area without anything to do, that sort of thing is susceptible to leading to temptation,” he said.
Kennard blamed magistrates for the overcrowding at the prison.
“The prison population is getting larger and larger and there is no one to blame but magistrates,” he said. “You are remanding people for minor offences and then the remand date is two months hence,” he further said, while noting that this is unfair.
He noted that granting of bail is linked to the likelihood of the accused person appearing for trial. He made the point that many accused persons who are remanded would go to the High Court and in a matter of hours are granted bail. “It means that the judges in the High Court realise that these people should never have been remanded,” he said.
Andrew Philander, one of the prisoners who died in the blaze, was incarcerated for eight years on a murder charge.
Kennard said that having someone in jail for that length of time without trial is “undesirable.”
He said backlogs will occur in every country but for some reason in Guyana “the wheels of justice turn very slowly.”
In addition, he said the magistrates can look at the means of the person to afford bail. He said where the law permits, instead of jailing persons, a fine can be imposed and this applies to most of the summary offences.
He was also critical of judges imposing long sentences, which he felt are also contributing to overcrowding in the prison.
“A person may have committed an offence but you have to give that person hope. I serve my penalty, I come out. I can start my life but you give a man 50 years—a man is 25 years—when he comes out he is an old man,” he said.
Kennard agreed that the gravity of the offence must be taken into consideration but said that previous convictions also have to be looked at. He explained that a first time offender ought to be given a lighter penalty than a person with a previous conviction.
He said even those who plead guilty from the inception ought to be given lighter sentences. “They are remorseful and you have to take that into consideration. Give him some credit for the fact that he has come clean and made a plea of guilty,” he added.
He said that when he was on the bench, there were five judges alone doing criminal cases. He said that given the volume of such matters in the court system today, there is clearly a need for even more judges to ensure that trials are heard in a timely manner.
He suggested that the majority of indictable matters should be dealt with by the magistracy, while adding that magistrates must weigh their options when deciding to jail a person.
Kennard stressed that many of the recommendations made by the inquiry he led should have been implemented by now. He said that he was disappointed that some were not taken seriously. “What’s the point of setting up an inquiry?” he questioned, while noting that it has become a trend that recommendations made after inquiries are not acted upon, despite the time and money spent and utilised to produce them.
He believes that the recommendations were not acted on because the government of the day did not approve. He had a similar experience after he served on the CoI into the July 18, 2012 fatal shootings at Linden.
“They may not agree with the recommendations and therefore they don’t implement them… It is not right,” he stressed.
A CoI inquiry was set up by President David Granger to probe the prisoner deaths after the March 3 fire as well as the conduct of the prison staff. The revised terms of reference for the CoI states that March 28 will be the date when the commission shall render its report, findings and recommendations.
Despite his own experiences, Kennard is confident that the recommendations made following the current inquiry will be implemented by the new government. Asked why he holds this view that this one would be different, he said that President Granger is very concerned, is a disciplinarian and has gone out of his way to see the conditions in the prison.