The fourth phase of a brick (concrete) building being constructed inside the compound of the city prison at Lot 12 Camp Street, is slated for completion at the end of July, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan informed the National Assembly last week during consideration of the budget estimates. He advised that it would cost $52 million. After it was completed, he further advised, a further $150 million would be spent on rehabilitating the older structure.
This brick building, on which construction was slated to have started since 2008, has had various amounts allocated to it over the years. There was $40 million announced in 2007; $31.72 million in 2012 and $81.7 million in 2014. And there may have been other sums in the years between those. It is therefore safe to say that the Camp Street facility will possibly be a bit safer for upwards of $205 million by the end of July.
However, it will be no less congested, as according to Minister Ramjattan, the plan is to move the prisoners out of the older building into the new one to facilitate repairs worth some $150 million. Perhaps after these repairs are completed there will be an ease to the overcrowding, but maybe not, given the rate at which people, the majority being men, are being incarcerated.
Prison overcrowding, particularly at Camp Street, has been an issue for decades. The city facility was designed to hold 600 prisoners, but it has been bursting at the seams for a while now with its actual total population fluctuating between 900 and 1200 over the years.
These cramped conditions have given rise to several significant issues. Among them are extra pressure on the sanitary and other facilities; an uneven prisoner to warden ratio and hostilities among prisoners who don’t have enough breathing space. Most importantly, an overcrowded prison presents a serious security issue as the propensity for and probability of breakouts increase.
At the Georgetown prison, inmates have protested against the deteriorating facilities umpteen times. In several instances they took to the roof of the cells, where they could see and be seen by citizens to make their voices heard.
On at least four occasions in the last five years, inmates have set fires inside the prison that were serious enough for the Guyana Fire Service to be called. The fires set in July 2010, November 2013, October 2014 and March 2015 may have been in protest to call attention to the poor facilities. But they may also have been set with a view to diverting attention to execute a prison break. The Guyana Prison Service has never fully explained how inmates came to be in possession of flammable material or whether investigations proved why the fires were set.
There have also been umpteen breakouts from the city prison over the years with the most infamous being that of Republic Day, February 23, 2002 when five dangerous men—Dale Moore, Troy Dick, Shawn Brown, Andrew Douglas and Mark Fraser—killed one prison officer and seriously wounded another. That escape saw the unleashing of a period of murderous terror in Guyana from which many citizens are yet to recover.
The lessons one hoped the authorities would have learned from these events seem difficult to absorb. But the easiest one clearly is that the capital is no place for a prison of the magnitude of the Camp Street jail.
Numerous calls have been made from all quarters for the relocation of this prison somewhere outside of Georgetown. Ideas floated include the Linden-Soesdyke Highway or an island in the Essequibo. Sadly, there seems to be no hope of this happening any time soon as there have not even been hints by those in authority of any such consideration – even as a long-term plan.
The strain on the Lot 12 Camp Street block is evident from the exterior. Some eight years ago, Camp Street became the private property of the Georgetown Prison Service with permanent barricades placed between Bent and D’Urban streets, effectively stifling longstanding businesses that had been developed in that area. There are times too when other streets are blocked to vehicular traffic to facilitate whatever activities are occurring in the prison adding to the congestion of the already choked city.
There will be no relief from any of this unless and until those in authority see the light and build a new prison outside the city to house convicted prisoners. Inmates on remand, whose trials are ongoing, could then be comfortably housed at Camp Street. While this will not reduce the attempts at escape, it will make breakouts less successful and less of a threat to city residents.