Former Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee yesterday said that government has to be careful not to give prisoners too much sympathy, adding that during the PPP/C’s time in office efforts were made to address the challenges plaguing the prison system.
“One has to be very careful when you are the Minister of Home Affairs that you don’t send the wrong signal to the prisoners. If you give to the prisoners that you are 100% sympathetic to them and you set up an internal mechanism to negotiate with prisoners then the prison officers are left out of that loop, when they are the ones who have custodial responsibility over the prisoners by law,” Rohee said during a press conference yesterday.
On Saturday, the PPP expressed concerns over the reports coming out of the prison, calling it a “dangerous state of affairs” and blaming the government.
Rohee yesterday criticised civilian involvement in negotiations with prisoners. He said prisoners also become motivated when the press begins carrying reports which are sympathetic towards them. He was making reference to a meeting between a delegation of prisoners and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon as well as the coverage of the ongoing Commission of Inquiry into the March 3 fire at the Camp Street jail that claimed 17 lives.
“That visit by those two men was not helpful. If they want to negotiate, they should do so through the directorate of the prisons, speak to the prison officers, get their views …or through the visiting committees,” Rohee, PPP General Secretary, told a press conference yesterday.
He cited the large number of prison officers who last week reported sick. “The perception is very important in the prison. It appeared to them that the administration was more sympathetic to the prisoners,” he said.
“I am not saying anyone here. I am speaking generally now. We have to be careful we don’t send the wrong signal… prisoners aren’t stupid. They are not stupid people. The fact that they can commit and plan a robbery or a murder, it tells me they got some degree of understanding and awareness of what they have to do in order not to get caught,” he said.
Rohee said that there were a number of challenges during his tenure and efforts were made to address them.
Giving an overview of the steps taken to deal with those challenges, he said that he met weekly with the Director of Prisons to discuss what “he perceived as challenges and what I perceived as challenges.”
He said that on a monthly basis the visiting committees, which consisted of civilians, would visit the various prisons and hold statutory meetings and report to the ministry what they observed and what they felt required rectification.
Rohee added that there were annual meetings where all the visiting committees would meet to share experiences and to formulate a general plan of work for all prisons. “What we found is that in the discussions you would find a lot of common problems among the prisons but they were being dealt with on a prison-by-prison basis. So what we found is that we had to formulate a common policy for the common problems across the prison locations,” he said.
According to Rohee, there were cases where there were problems which were peculiar to some prisons and specific policies had to be formulated. “So, we had specific solutions to specific problems based on the peculiarity of the prisons and we have general solutions to general problems,” he said.
Rohee also said that there was a committee that brought together the Officers in Charge of all the prisons and during those meetings certain problems would be discussed, following which a report would be compiled and sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs. He said the ministry sought to address the various problems within the system as they arose.
Rohee spoke of the shortage of prison officers and training them to overcome the various challenges in the prison. Rohee explained that then government established a training school at the Lusignan Prison, where new recruits, in particular, were brought “up to speed” with the latest techniques being used at prison locations around the world.
As regards increasing the number of prison officers, he said that just before leaving office the PPP/C cabinet had made a decision to increase the number in the fixed establishment of the prison service. He said a recruitment training board, made up of senior members of the prison service and civilians, was set up to interview the recruits.
The ethnic balance in the prison service was also a challenge and he made mention of this being given some prominence in the over a decade old Disciplined Forces Commission’s report. He said this has not been accomplished and up to this day remains a challenge. “How that will be addressed is left to the Guyana Prison Service. I don’t think it could be done through political interference,” he said.
Overcrowding was another challenge. Rohee said the former government started transforming the Lusignan Prison into a facility for first offenders so that they “would not be contaminated by the hard core prisoners.”
He said another step taken was to ensure that the Parole Board was functioning effectively. He explained that parole can be granted to prisoners who would have already served one third of their sentence. He said that prisoner first makes an application, which is looked at by the board, following which a recommendation is sent to the ministry.
“The Parole Board, in many ways, helped with the easing of the congestion although they worked a little slowly because you have to take your time to grant a person parole,” he said.
Rohee said the question of remission was also helpful as it reduced the length of time a person spent behind bars. Remission, he said, was granted to a large number of prisoners and in some cases six months or even a year was taken off their sentences. The granting of bail by the High Court also helped to ease the overcrowding.
He said that there was “a combination of elements” put in place to reduce the overcrowding at the Georgetown Prison, while adding that the decrease will come once the criminal justice system is effective and efficient.
Rohee said the penitentiary in Georgetown was the one which caused him the most worry, particularly since it is where the most dangerous prisoners are kept.
The securing of the special watch prisoners was also a challenge. He noted that these prisoners are the most dangerous and among them were those charged with being involved in the Bartica and Lusignan massacres. “I was hoping and praying that during the turmoil …that those particular special watch prisoners were not out,” he said.