The events of last Thursday which ended so tragically are more associated with the news emanating from Brazil, Venezuela or Mexico, than with Georgetown, Guyana. This is not to say that we are strangers to prison riots, mattress burnings, prisoners on the roof and in the case of 2002 especially, violent prison break-outs; it is simply to observe that our prison system has never had deaths on this scale before, and in particular, deaths as a consequence of fire.
In a Stabroek News editorial on the Camp Street prison as recently as a week-and-a-half ago, attention was drawn to the fact that there had been four occasions in the last five years when inmates had set fires inside the jail which were serious enough for the Fire Service to be called. Certainly there were no official inquiries into those incidents, and information about the full circumstances surrounding them was never provided to the public by the Guyana Prison Service.
There was too the case in 1997, this time involving the Mazaruni prison, where four dormitories were burnt down by inmates, who were reported to have been angered over the imposition of a curfew. In contrast to Camp Street, Mazaruni covers a relatively extensive area, and no one was injured because the layout was not conducive to prisoners becoming trapped.
In incidents of this kind there are usually underlying causes as well as proximate ones; the last mentioned would involve the triggers for the action and the immediate sequence of events which led up to it. In terms of motive, in addition to whatever sparks the riot, there may in addition be underlying resentments which fester over a period of time and find their expression at that particular moment.
The underlying causes of the problems in Guyana’s prison system are very well known. The first is quite simply overcrowding. Camp Street in particular was built to house 600 prisoners, and as of the end of last week was accommodating 984. Among others, the Disciplined Services Commission Report of 2004 adverted to the growing size of the prison population and recommended that Camp Street should be rehabilitated and Mazaruni expanded and given the resources for a greater prison intake.
There have been various recommendations floated over the years about moving the main jail somewhere outside Georgetown, and just using Camp Street for remand prisoners. The idea was supposedly given some consideration when Mr Ronald Gajraj was Home Affairs Minister, and then was jettisoned. As it is, what has been done is to try to alleviate the problem in Georgetown by adding more buildings ‒ a major one is due for completion in July this year. The problem is, the yard space for inmates to exercise has steadily been reduced in the process, which is hardly advisable in an overcrowded jail.
An overflowing prison population puts stress on the physical infrastructure – particularly the sanitary facilities – and on the services in general. Certainly it is nothing new for those incarcerated to be complaining about conditions, and as mentioned earlier, there was a time a few years ago when prisoners took to the roof regularly to voice their dissatisfaction. On Wednesday, our reporter could hear them shouting about their “daily plight” and that they weren’t getting their food – whatever construction one is to put on that. As it is, Ministers Joseph Harmon and Khemraj Ramjattan took on board some of the complaints when they met a few inmates of Lot 12 on Friday, and promised, among other things, that the quality of meals at the institution would be addressed.
Overcrowding and the consequent disaffection it engenders can lead to a greater likelihood of attempted escapes, putting the lives of warders and, in the case of Camp Street, the general public at greater risk. Following the 2002 breakout, cameras were installed, and new security protocols instituted, although some notable lapses were discovered after there were subsequent escapes.
The second underlying cause is the number and quality of the officers in the service. At the time of the Mazaruni fire, for example, there were far too few warders on site to control the situation, and all they could do was secure the escape routes and then wait until reinforcements in the form of the police and the army arrived. That was the situation almost twenty years ago, and things haven’t improved since.
The fact that there are some corrupt officers numbered among the warders is not exactly classified information either. In more recent times specific allegations have been made against one warder especially, in relation to an acid-throwing incident in the New Amsterdam prison.
Certainly the prison authorities have been asked every time an incident occurs, how the inmates got their hands on one or another banned item. (Notoriously in 2002, it was an AK-47.) In this instance, it is marijuana, cell phones and lighters – the last-named of which were used to start the fires. The stock reply always is that these things were thrown over the wall, although there is nowadays usually a careful admission that not all officers are straight. Being a prison warder is a stressful job of course, and pay and conditions would have to be looked at if more responsible applicants were to be attracted to the work.
At the time of the infamous 2002 break-out, it was reported that it was difficult to recruit enough men into the prison service, and that more women were being hired than was good for security in male prisons. Whether this continues to be a problem has not been disclosed, although nothing has been said in this case which would suggest that it had any role to play in events. Be that as it may, the service remains understaffed with all the implications that has for security.
Where the triggers for the riot and fire are concerned, only piecemeal information has emerged into the public domain, and it would be for the recently appointed Commission of Inquiry to investigate that thoroughly. What has been reported was that the first riot on Wednesday followed a search of the prisoners’ quarters and the seizure of marijuana and cell phones. That this might have some credence is suggested by the fact that Messrs Harmon and Ramjattan agreed that prisoners would be allowed an extra telephone call each week when they met the inmates’ representatives.
Some of the underlying motives, such as the matter of food, dealt with above, are already public. Another is the delay in cases going to trial. This has long been a source of complaint by prisoners, but is much more complicated to address because it involves the judicial system. For their part, the two Ministers on Friday indicated a meeting was planned with Chancellor Carl Singh, although what can come out of that in the short term is open to question. If the community service option were available then the magistracy might be less disposed to impose so many custodial sentences. High bail also is responsible for a lot of committals to Lot 12. Certainly, if fewer men were remanded or sentenced to jail, the overcrowding would be relieved somewhat.
There may be other motives too which the Commission would need to unearth.
Similarly, it might be added, questions in relation to the detailed sequence of events, such as how it was not possible to save the seventeen men who died, would have to be answered by the Commis-sion of Inquiry. One specific aspect of this relates to the fire extinguishing equipment that warders had at their disposal – one hose and some buckets of sand, it has been reported. This seems unbelievable in a complex parts of which are old, which houses 984 men in cramped conditions, and where there has been a history of setting fires.
The relatives of the dead and injured are entitled to a really thorough investigation.