-says ‘cancer’ of overcrowding must be tackled
-cites testimony of ‘indescribably harsh’ prison conditions
The Prison Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has concluded that the prisoners were mostly to blame for the deaths of 17 inmates at the Camp Street prison on March 3 and it has urged the formation of a committee to focus on reducing the overcrowding in the prison system where at least 60% of the population are on remand.
The commission’s final report which was handed over to President David Granger last month but is still to be released publicly, made a slew of recommendations to reform the conditions and operation of the prison system not only for the benefit of the prisoners but also the prison staff. The CoI probed the March 3rd, 2016 Camp Street Prison unrest, which claimed the lives of 17 inmates.
The report said that establishing the sequence of events was generally achievable more readily than assessing responsibility and assigning blame for the tragedy. With regard to the sequence of events, the CoI said it was confident that it can piece together what occurred with a reasonable degree of confidence.
“The exception to this general statement would be with respect to efforts to open the jammed lock on the door of the cell-block, where assigning responsibility for what went wrong is more complex,” the report said.
The 104-page document said that to the extent that the prisoners set the fires and robustly resisted efforts by the Guyana Prison Service (GPS) to put them out, they created the conditions in which it was not possible to unlock the cell door.
“The causes of the death of the prisoners can be summarised as their own negligence, recklessness and violent behaviour on the morning of the March 3rd, 2016,” the report said. It asserted that lighting fires with highly combustible materials in an enclosed area caused a ‘flash-over’ to the extent that the fire got out of control in a matter of minutes, and tampering with an entrance lock and failure to exit the building when ordered to do so, can be considered as the main contributory factors that led to the deaths of the prisoners.
“Unpalatable as it is to assign blame to the dead, some of them at least, along with a number of survivors, must be assigned the immediate responsibility for the deaths that occurred. Whether the decision of refusing to come out of the cell block in reaction to the man-handling of Collis Collison was justified; whether it was forced on the majority by ring-leaders; whether it was a justified fear or a pretext to prolong the disturbance, are issues the Commission could not resolve,” the report said.
“It can be summarised from evidence led that the institutional neglects were not sufficient to cause the death of the seventeen inmates,” the report said adding that this “most regrettable tragedy” points to a myriad of institutional deficiencies which contributed significantly to the state of affairs, exacerbating riotous situations with limited capabilities to quell and suppress them most effective and professional manner.
It stated that although the CoI began taking evidence promptly, sufficient time had elapsed for settled versions of events to be agreed on by both sides.
“While responsibility for the tragedy must be shared, though not equally, between prisoners and staff involved in the immediate events, the CoI examined the larger context in which it occurred. Moreover, in assigning blame, insufficient attention has been paid to the valiant attempts by prisoners in the nearby block to save the trapped prisoners. Camp Street is not populated only by hardened criminals,” the report said.
According to the report, the CoI received credible accounts that daily life in Camp Street prison is “indescribably harsh.” It added that prisoners spend most of their day in spaces which are occupied by three, four and five times more people than they were intended to accommodate.
“Roaches, centipedes, lice and rats flourish. Blocked toilet areas in cells overflow. The Commission heard of men trying in the night to get to the toilet areas, stepping on sleeping prisoners, falling over others, causing fights. As the prison population increases, internal mobility in the prison decreases,” it said adding that a chronically under-strength staff, the majority of whom are female, “are outnumbered, rehabilitation activities are suspended and inmates remain locked down.”
The report said that “almost on a daily basis, a group leaves the prison early in the morning to search for firewood for the prison kitchens.”
It stated that information provided to the CoI by the GPS shows some 60% of prisoners living in these conditions have not been found guilty of any crime “who in theory, enjoy a presumption of innocence. They are remand prisoners, the responsibility of the Judiciary, not the GPS, who has no discretion to refuse to take them.”
In addition to the judiciary, the report said the Commission learnt of other agencies with statutory responsibilities to support the prison system failing in their supporting role. It said that attorneys are rarely seen in the prison assisting remand prisoners to get to trial. “Over the past ten years, an average of only seven prisoners per year have been released by the Parole Board. The Ministry of Health, which has the power to demand the release of prisoners on health grounds offers minimal services to the prison despite a sizeable component of mentally ill, HIV positive and drug substance-addicted prisoners,” it said.
“Even a cursory exposure to this context is sufficient to dismiss the notion that the responsibility for the tragic events can be restricted to the actions of prisoners and prison staff at the time they occurred,” the report added.
Despite their contributory role in creating and sustaining these appalling conditions as both a workplace and a place of detention, in their interactions with the Commission, “the associated Agencies displayed no sense of shared accountability or responsibility. Members of the Guyana Bar Association utilized the CoI for media self-promotion at every opportunity. Their efforts to demean the CoI in the public mind, however, is of less consequence than that they did nothing to either enhance the image of the profession or the work of the Commission,” the report asserted.
It recommended the creation of a High Level Committee focused solely on reducing the “cancer of over-crowding,” along with a range of ancillary recommendations to improve the engagement of key agencies and to strengthen the professional capacity of the GPS to respond to its diverse challenges. The commissioners, in the report, also called on the country’s president to ensure that sufficient momentum and political authority is vested in implementing the various recommendations and in a year’s time to order a review of their effectiveness.
A special recommendation was made for the creation of a mechanism charged with the sole responsibility of creating a plan to reduce prison over-crowding and to maintain a sustainable intake in the future.
“The prison directorate in Guyana does not enjoy the powers of their counterparts in some parts of the United States where overcrowding is addressed by empowering the Prison Director to commence a process of release of prisoners starting with those closest to their release dates,” the report observed. It said that these powers are linked to budgetary allocations for food and maintenance of decent standards as required by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Retired Justice James Patterson (Chairman), human rights activist Merle Mendonca and former prisons director Dale Erskine were the members of the commission.