Last year, when considering the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into the March 2016 prison disturbances in which 17 inmates lost their lives, I made two recommendations having to do with imprisonment and sentencing, which I am following up on here, because I believe they are still important to how our criminal justice system develops and is responded to by those in jail. Being in a jail or prison may be technically two different things, but in Guyanese parlance there is no difference and the former is thought of as being worse.
My first recommendation was rooted in my belief that prisoners are allowed only the most rudimentary decent human contact and thus imprisonment destroys the entire process by which, through their activities, men meet each other in the process of development and humanization (SN: 06/04/2016). However, regardless of one’s philosophy, it is now broadly accepted that although it might be necessary in some circumstances, imprisonment is dehumanizing and should be conducted in humane conditions and only as a last resort. Therefore, if after the conflagration of July 9 2017, we could let some 91 prisoners out without endangering society, it suggests that prison is not being utilised by the political establishment in this minimalist manner and it is incumbent upon like minds to continue to make this point and to inquire why it is that we insist on putting persons who need not be there in such dehumanizing conditions.
It is well established that Scandinavian prisons are the most humane in the world, yet Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest crime and recidivist rates in the world – half those of the United States or Great Britain. An observer stated that one of the important reasons this is so is because, ‘throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field. … Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and results-based prison policy are media that don’t sensationalize crime – if they report it at all’ (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/why-scandinavian-prisons-are-superior/279949/).
In the United States, for example, Republicans and Democrats have waged a ‘tougher on crime’ competition ‘built upon white unease with the disruption of the old racial order brought about by the civil rights and Black Power movements. … Under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime, and terror, the urban poor and disenfranchised, especially young black men, have been rounded up in mass numbers, largely for non-violent drug crimes, of which middle-class whites have been consistently shown to be equal perpetrators’ (Ibid).
One Norwegian criminologist who has been a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy made the important observation that criminal punishment is also determined by whom voters imagine this punishment landing upon. The more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes. ‘More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts. … The harshness of the punishment that fearful voters are convinced is the only thing that works on people who don’t think or act like them becomes a measure of the moral distance between these voters and people identified as criminals’ (Ibid).
So that when the political establishment as a whole broadens the scope of the criminal law and enacts or maintains overly severe penalties for relatively minor crimes that disproportionately affect the poor, it should be noted that justice and the law can be essentially two different things and that both are many a time underpinned by all manner of destructive class and ethnic prejudices and self-interest. Maybe also given the ethnic nature of the prison population, when the PPP projects itself and the regime as respectively being ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ on crime (SN: 12/07/2017), it should take some time to consider the foundation of such thinking and upon whom the punishment is most likely to land.
The highly chaotic, dangerous and permissive conditions that exist in the prison environment are fairly well known and most people are repelled by this sort of institution. Yet it is widely recognised, and my second recommendation was that prisons require persistent public concern, oversight and activism if the abuses taking place in them that give rise to dangerous levels of inmate dissatisfaction are to be minimized and the prison environment come a bit closer to being fit for human habitation. (‘Prisons require persistent public oversight:’ SN: 13/04/2016).
Therefore, in the present environment, a statement emanating from former Minister of Home Affairs and opposition spokesperson Mr. Clement Rohee is very troubling. He claimed to have recognised the importance of public oversight and had established a raft of institutions – a strategic management board including persons from civil society, a sentence management board that met every month with prison management to assess and to take corrective action, prison visiting committees of civilians, an agriculture development board and a board for training and education of prisoners – to allow civilian oversight to flourish. However, according to him, all of these were disbanded by the current government, and so far as he is aware, nothing has taken their place. (‘Rohee accuses gov’t of shelving PPP/C-led prison reforms:’ SN: 16/07/2017). Recently, Christopher Ram pointed to a similar situation in relation to the appointment of the high level committee recommended by the 2016 COI (SN: 16/07/2017).
Now, regardless of the shortcomings of the above institutional arrangement and the previous government in relation to the topic under discussion, it was not sensible to disband without replacing these institutions. Indeed, the government’s behaviour makes nonsense of the claim that financing prison reform was largely responsible for the recent events at Camp Street as establishing such vital arrangements would not have been overly expensive. The president’s claim – which was intended to deflect most of the blame on the previous PPP/C government – that the conflagration was ‘an accident waiting to happen,’ must also be cast aside.
Sympathetic voices would have us believe that criticising the regime is unfair since we do not know what was done and what was not (‘Calls for Ramjattan resignation unfair, former prison inquiry chairman says:’ SN: 16/07/2017). It is the duty of the government to present the public with some kind of account demonstrating what has been accomplished so far and what have been the obstacles it has had to confront. In the absence of such an account, I believe criticism of the government is justified and in view of the importance of public oversight, if the situation is as reported, the regime should act quickly to replace and where necessary improve it.