The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) yesterday said that the Joint Services’ ability to relocate just over 1,000 prisoners following Sunday’s destruction of the Camp Street Prison bordered on the “miraculous” and was deserving of praise.
In a statement issued yesterday, the GHRA said that judging from their performance on Sunday night, lessons have been learned by the Guyana Prison Service (GPS) and the Joint Services from last year’s fire, in which 17 prisoners perished.
It also called for a quick assessment of other aspects of the tragedy.
Fire was set at various points by rioting prisoners on Sunday and several of them managed to escape.
The GHRA yesterday stated that while a final accounting for all prisoners awaits a search of the cooling-off compound, the Prison Service staff and Joint Services who worked with them along with inmates deserve the highest commendation.
This commendation, the statement said, is additionally merited, in the light of the provocation of the Prison Officers’ Club being set alight, allegedly by some inmates being held there as a temporary measure.
“The spotlight needs to move fairly quickly to an assessment of other aspects of this tragedy,” the GHRA said.
It said the prison population as of Sunday, according to Prison Director (ag) Gladwin Samuels, stood at 1,018 in a prison built originally to accommodate 300 to 400 inmates.
While noting that the prison has to take all who are sent by the courts, the GHRA highlighted that a central complaint leading to last year’s fire came from remand prisoners, who usually spend long periods awaiting trial.
It said the Commission of Inquiry report after last year’s fire pointed out that refusal of bail in bailable cases, inability by prisoners to pay bail, a dearth of magistrates, slowness of the high courts, and lack of alternative sentences and absence of a sentencing policy leading to bizarre discrepancies in sentences were causes of overcrowding, which one way or another fall within the purview of the administration of justice.
“Following a temporary introduction of night courts and appeals to magistrates to use their common sense and be evenhanded in bail matters, overcrowding has assumed a lower profile. An initiative to develop alternative penalties has reportedly been developed but its effects are not yet evident in the courts,” the statement said.
It was noted that equally disturbing was the lack of sustained interest from the legal profession in bringing pressure to keep prison reform front and centre in the public concern.
Similarly, it added that the Parole Board, the other key institution nominally responsible for the welfare and safety of prisoners, has powers to ensure that time spent productively while in prison will result in positive and timely recommendations for parole. “It is the safety valve all prisons require to incentivize good behaviour.
More attention to the role of the Guyana Parole Board is needed to ensure public accountability and greater vitality,” GHRA stressed. “By contrast, the GPS has shown imagination and leadership on overcrowding by rewarding prisoners who work without compensation in the prisons,” it stated.
According to the release, Samuels is reported as stating that as a form of compensation, the prisoners receive reduced time on their sentences. “Last year a total of 8,743 days were taken off from the sentences.
In the past, it was seven to 28 days, but this time we started from 14 to 21, to 28 days….many of them are well behaved and go beyond the call of duty of what is required,” he was quoted as saying, while noting that some 486 prisoners have benefited from the scheme to date.