Failing to implement prison CoI recommendations

One of the recommendations of the Justice James Patterson led Commission of Inquiry into the state of the Georgetown prison following a deadly riot in March was the need for an effective surveillance system in the prison yard to monitor and record both prisoners and officers’ conduct.

Shortly after the report was submitted Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan went on record saying that the recommendations were to be implemented “at the soonest” following discussion at Cabinet. Now six months have passed since the report was handed over to President David Granger and there has been no word on whether any such surveillance system has been established. In fact, there has been no word on whether Cabinet has discussed the report and its findings.

It is public knowledge that the country’s prison systems are in dire need of reform, while reports from various CoIs stretching back over a decade have been gathering dust, remaining unimplemented, while those in authority seek out fresh consultants to hold fresh inquiries into the unchanging status quo.

The urgent need for implementation of such reforms is glaring, especially considering the prison riot in March resulted in the death of 17 prisoners. However, change cannot be led in an environment of complacency and complicity.  Prison officers, like many in our Disciplined Forces, have over the years ended up on the wrong side of the law and several have been jailed in the past for smuggling items into the prisons. While these arrests have seemingly ceased, there is nothing to suggest that culpability on the part of officers is no longer an issue.

Restoring stability to the prisons will require more than monitoring the prisoners; it will require a willingness on the part of the relevant authorities to police their own. In this vein, the recommendation coming out of the Justice Patterson inquiry for the establishment of an efficient surveillance system combined with an intelligence system to monitor and manage crime within the prison walls ought to have been acted upon post-haste.

The likely approach for this government would be to take baby-steps in implementing the reforms whereby the less complicated measures are acted on first. In this vein, setting up a surveillance system will address the ongoing challenges with the contraband trade and violence/intimidation within the prisons. More important too, it will impact on the complacency and complicity by prison officials that has led to a culture of criminality taking root within the penal system.

Just last week the Joint Services launched ‘Operation Safeway’ at the Georgetown and New Amsterdam prisons as part of “heightened security activities” to ensure domestic security, during which  several contraband items were seized. At the Georgetown Prison these included 21 improvised weapons and knives, 20 razor blades, 558 grammes of marijuana, 22 cellular phones and five gallons of homemade wine, while a lesser number of similar items were found at the New Amsterdam Prison.

Prior to this, a similar exercise dubbed ‘Operation Restore Order,’ was held in May this year at the prisons followed by one in September. Both exercises boasted the recovery of many similar items. Clearly, that the prisoners continue to build up a stash of contraband items even after these raids indicates a larger problem that must point to severely compromised prison personnel at various levels.

During the Justice Patterson led CoI prisoners spoke openly about the levels of corruption at the Georgetown Prison. Several testimonies spoke of the complicity of prison officials and one prisoner, Carl Brown, offered details on the participation of prison officials. Brown summed it up this way: “De officers themselves bringing it and we buying it and we gon still buying it…and as soon as they’re taken away, you pay and yuh gon geh dem back.” Brown was one of several prisoners who testified to having active Facebook accounts, something which was later verified.

While the testimonies of many of the inmates can be dismissed as attacks on the prison staff, the prison raids continue to provide evidence that complicity of prison staffers is an indisputable factor. There is also the practice of items being tossed over the prison walls even though armed spotters are strategically placed outside the prison, and we should reasonably expect that the grounds are carefully searched before prisoners are released there for their daily outdoor activities. If prison staffers are indeed found culpable, we should expect that arrests over the years should have resulted in visible court action being taken against the offenders.

Relatives of prisoners are also involved in the smuggling of prohibited items into the prisons, but again, this points to a complacency and/or security lapses at the prison. How is it that relatives manage to get certain items past the security checkpoints in place at the prisons?

Justice Cecil Kennard – who led a Commission of Inquiry following the infamous 2002 jailbreak – recently decried the approach of setting up commissions and churning out reports while failing to act on any of the recommendations. “What’s the point of setting up an inquiry?” he asked during an interview with Stabroek News while pointing to the established trend of not acting upon recommendations despite the time and money expended to produce these reports.

Indeed, after spending some $13 million of taxpayer funds on the recent Patterson CoI, this government is yet to act on the recommendations, and fulfil its obligations to taxpayers who funded the exercise.

We are not sure either whether the prison conditions adhere to the minimum standards of health, food, potable water, accommodation, sanitation, and hygiene outlined in the United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. There should be compliance with these minimum standards, despite the vociferous approbation of harsh conditions which emanate from members of the public, with their references to “five star hotels” whenever the subject is raised. Such comments are perhaps understandable from members of the public, reeling under the weight of rampant criminality, but are inexcusable from persons in authority and those who should know better.

The truth is that a prison is supposed to be a punishment and a correctional facility that processes and releases most of its inmates back into the society. Inhumane prison conditions do not benefit the administration of a good prison system and only exacerbate the punishment factor doing nothing for the correctional aspect of the process. The result is that many inmates are released back into society in a much worse mental condition than when they entered, and this benefits society not one iota.

This APNU+AFC administration has its work cut out for it, and it must have professional functionaries other than political ones who can settle down to the task of fixing our problems, not the least of which is this penal dilemma, which seems at the very least not to be improving.

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