The report of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the March 3rd Camp Street prison riot that claimed 17 lives has recommended that the government make urgent efforts to reduce overcrowding and improve the physical and social facilities there.
This is according to the commission’s chairman Justice James Patterson who said that “our concern is that our concerns are urgent, immediate and we want it done like yesterday”.
Justice Patterson, speaking to reporters shortly after handing over the report yesterday to President David Granger at the Ministry of Presidency, pointed out that there is the need to find more accommodation for prisoners.
He said that the commission has also focused on the economic aspect of things as it is felt that after leaving jail, prisoners “must be able to earn something”. He said that the report also addresses the alleviation of the overcrowding in the prison. “We would want it to be considered as urgent the improvement of physical and social facilities. We were concerned with the overcrowding”, he stressed.
Asked if the time given was adequate for the commission to complete its work, he responded “we were able to make it adequate, to make it do”.
With regards to any recommendations for disciplinary action against any prison officer being made he said that that was not within their responsibility. “We did not sit as a court of first jurisdiction so to speak.
That’s for my employers to deal with. They could extrapolate from the evidence what needs to be done and it is theirs to do not ours to recommend”, he said.
Granger in his remarks said that government is continuing to look at prison reform and keeping the population safe. “We have a good idea what needs to be done. We are gonna be strengthening Mazaruni and we are going to be continuing the process of redeploying prisoners from Georgetown to Mazaruni but the infrastructure at Mazaruni has to be improved”, he said.
Granger added that government does have a plan to increase the human resources component of the prison system as well as to improve conditions. He said that starting this year, prison officers will receive training at the police academy. “We expect that that would raise their level of competence. The number of prison officers will be augmented so that Mazaruni would have a larger core of prisoner officers and we are going to build into the prison…a team of officers who would be able to respond to incidents like the one that occurred on the 3rd of March. So we should not see the need to call out the defence force and the police force to support the prison service they would have their own capability”, he said.
Granger pointed out that over the years the prison population has expanded and would have outgrown the infrastructure that was in place. “So we are aware that something has to be done and before we took action we had to know exactly what the commission was particularly referring to because it is in the heart of the city. There are schools, population, homes, business places and we want to make sure that there is no threat to human safety ever again”, he said.
According to Granger before receiving the report government had taken on some initiatives. He said that up to an hour before the handing over ceremony the National Security Committee was examining prison reform. He said this has been a topic at every meeting of the committee for the last three months.
He said that no government would be happy to see people spending most of their lives in the prison system; graduating from prison to prison. He noted that it is for this reason that under the leadership of Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the Executive has engaged the judicial branch to look at sentencing policies and alternatives to incarceration.
He spoke of his visit to Mazaruni in the aftermath of the deadly riot to look at conditions there and to determine whether prison life there for both inmates and staff could be improved. He said government looked at improving the production of food, providing inmates with facilities “to alter their behaviour so they don’t have to return to that system….The matters you have examined during the course of this inquiry have been engaging the National Security Committee over the last few months”, he stressed.
Granger called it a “landmark report” before assuring that government will continue its efforts to ensure that Guyana is a safer place and fewer persons enter the prison system.
Hours after the 17 prisoners were killed and another five injured when fire was set in their cells in protest at a range of issues, Granger called an emergency meeting of the National Security Commit-tee during which he instructed Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan to set up the three-member CoI.
According to the Terms of Reference, the commission was constituted to inquire into all the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the 17 prisoners, to report the findings and conclusions to the Minister of Public Security and to make recommendations on any action that should be taken to avoid a recurrence.
It was to further “Determine whether the conduct of the staff of the Guyana Prison Service who were on duty” on that day and thereafter was in conformity with the Standard Operating Procedures of the Guyana Prison Service and “whether the deaths of the 17 prisoners was as a result of the negligence, abandonment of duty, disregard of instructions, inaction of the prison officers” who were on duty the previous night and on that day.
The commission was to make comprehensive recommendations to ensure the safety of the prisons.
Justice Patterson used the opportunity yesterday to thank his fellow commissioners – human rights activist Merle Mendonca and former prisons director Dale Erskine as well as the staff.