‘We cannot change postures and behaviours overnight’ -Prison inquiry Chairman urges patience for reforms

Retired judge James Patterson says it will take a large scale operation as well as money to fix the broken prison system and is urging the public to be patient with the process as it cannot be done in the short term.

“This is a maximum operation that has to be done. Then you have to get the money for it. We gotta build structures…you gotta train people and that takes time and you have to do something about correcting the new intake…,” Justice Patterson, who chaired the recent Commission of Inquiry into the fatal Camp Street Prison fire, told Stabroek News.

Justice Patterson, who is the former Chief Justice of Grenada, pointed out that the inquiry had to address miscarriages of over a decade. “It [CoI] did so as best as it could. We did not have enough time to do something more in-depth and I think it called for something more in-depth but time and economic constraints stifled us a bit,” he said.

Justice Patterson stated that the prison service was the “stepchild” of the Joint Services and that successive governments have just ignored it until it reached an unacceptable level. In urging patience for reforms, he called for support for not only the prison administration but also the government.

The Prison CoI officially began on March 10 and came to an end on May 9. It probed the March 3, 2016 Camp Street Prison unrest, during which a fire claimed the lives of 17 inmates, but at the same time also brought into focus the conditions which exist at the other prisons across the country.

Justice Patterson was assisted by two other commissioners, human rights activist Merle Mendonca and former prisons director Dale Erskine.

The Ministry of the Presidency recently announced that a Joint Services operation at the Georgetown and New Amsterdam prisons unearthed large amounts of contraband. The Ministry, in a press statement, said that the Joint Services conducted “Operation Safeguard” at the prisons as part of “heightened security activities” to ensure domestic security.

The operation, which began at both prisons simultaneously, saw members of the Guyana Police Force, Guyana Defence Force, Prison Service and Guyana Fire Service engaged in the removal of contraband items as well as in inspections of the facilities.

Asked if he was surprised at the amount of contraband that was found, Justice Patterson said “no” without hesitation. “…It [the problems in the prisons] can’t end suddenly,” he reasoned.

The recommendations made by the CoI made little mention of measures that could limit prisoners’ access to certain types of contraband. Direct reference was, however, made to beds and cell phones.

It was stated that prison beds and other equipment in dormitories must be constructed in a manner to make them tamper-proof, reducing opportunities to convert them into improvised weapons. The inquiry also recommended installation of an effective jamming system for cell phones, if not in the entire compound, then at least in the high security blocks.

When asked why specific recommendations were not made about ensuring that weapons, phones and other contraband did not end up in the possession of prisoners, Justice Patterson blamed the omission on insufficient time. “There were a lot of things we wanted to do but they said they wanted it done in such and such a time,” he said, while stressing that because of the limited time they could not go in-depth.

He said that in order to “cure” the current situation, the prison staff have to be vigilant. He noted though that this would be difficult “when you have a corrupt staff.”

According to Justice Patterson, it must be remembered that the commission was addressing something that was quite “old.” He said the inquiry was able to bring to the fore a “cancer in society and in that particular institution that was always there.”

Speaking specifically about the problems affecting the prison system, he described them as human ones. “We cannot change postures and behaviours overnight and so the general public needs to understand that,” he said, while adding that some allegations of corruption levelled against prison staff are well founded. In this regard, he said that the “lure” of fast money cannot disappear overnight.

According to Justice Patterson, the first step to dealing with these problems is recognising that corruption is still there and that this has to be dealt with upfront.

When it comes to the prisons, he said, people have got to understand that “they have to have patience.” He pointed out that everything has to be done “to mitigate the amount of people that are going in there that shouldn’t get in.”

Justice Patterson said that he admired Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan for all that he is doing. “He is sincere in getting things done,” he stressed, while adding that the minister at his request furnished him with all the resources he needed to conduct the inquiry. He said the only thing they did not have  was more time. He said two weeks more would have been adequate.

President David Granger, who had set up the inquiry, had stated that the CoI, initially established to run for three weeks, was going on for too long. The commission had been granted a two-month extension to meet the Terms of Reference outlined for it after the initial three weeks had expired.

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