Gov’t acted on what it could afford from prison inquiry report – Ramjattan

Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan has said that the government acted on the recommendations it could afford from the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into last year’s deadly riot at the Camp Street Prison, while stressing that most of the major ones, including the construction of a new prison, require large sums of money.

The 70 recommendations made by the three-man commission, headed by retired judge James Patterson, have gained renewed attention in the light of Sunday’s violent breakout, which left a prison warden dead and the Camp Street jail destroyed.

Ramjattan, while responding to questions during a late night press conference held hours after on Sunday, did not touch on a quarter of the recommendations made, leaving behind burning questions about actions taken by government to improve the existing conditions in the country’s jails. “Most of the recommendations—that we could have afforded—have been implemented but we still have problems,” he said, when asked why some of the recommendations were not implemented.

Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan 

Ramjattan insisted that some of the recommendations which encapsulated measures that would lead to a better system of checking, were implemented. “A number of those things were put in place and that is why we have caught a number of prison wardens… about six or seven were caught carrying cigarettes and carrying in lighters. It is because these things were done and the security cameras and so on caught them,” he said.

He explained that the government would have allocated funds for the “smaller things” that were needed and purchases were made. “…So I don’t know what it is that is being said here,” he added, although he did not list some of the purchases.

Government spent approximately $13 million to conduct the inquiry. The operational recommendations made included making locks, prison beds and other equipment in dormitories tamper-proof, thereby reducing opportunities of prisoners converting them into improvised weapons. It was also recommended that an effective jamming system be installed for cell phones, at least in the high-security blocks if not in the entire facility.

The CoI report stated that equipment to protect officers from physical harm should also be installed as well as an effective surveillance system in the prison yard to monitor and record both prisoners and officers’ conduct. It also recommended that, with support from the police and army intelligence units, an effective intelligence system should be created within the system to manage crime, gangs, prisoners of high security interest, contraband trade and violence/intimidation within the prison system. It said too that high-profile prisoners and prisoners with very long sentences must be strategically separated from the general population. It was also recommended that the Joint Services Contingency Plans for Fire, Riots and Hostage be reviewed, having regard to the actual circumstances occurring from March 2 to 4, 2016.

A review of the internal walls of high security blocks to avoid prisoners breaking through them was suggested as well as introduction of a more effective system of lighting in dormitories to avoid tampering and turning off of lights by prisoners in divisions. The possible removal of the Camp Street prison was also recommended.

The CoI report recommended that a new prison at Lusignan be completed. However, Ramjattan explained that $6 billion at minimum would be required to construct a new prison and he said it would take about three years to accomplish.

The CoI urged that in addition to the new prison at Lusignan, the Mazaruni Prison facilities should be upgraded to improve the prison’s capacity to house inmates under humane conditions. Enhancement of the structure and equipment at the Cecil Kilkenny Prison Officers’ Training School at Lusignan to create a receptive learning environment for prison officers was also advocated.

While Ramjattan did speak about the Mazaruni Prison, he gave no indication that the recommendation made was being implemented. Rather, he explained that at the moment the focus is on the construction of administrative staff buildings. “We also made arrangements for a set of monies to start the expansion of Mazaruni and this budget 2017 …we allocated, I think, approximately $300 million to start the administrative staff buildings because we realise that once you start having more prisons built there, you will also have to have accommodation for staff as was recommended too and we had started with that,” he said.

According to Ramjattan, among the other major recommendations made was ensuring that remand prisoners get early trials, for which government has spent approximately $60 million already. “I had a night court shift for some time period after speaking to Mr Carl Singh the then Chancellor,” he said, while adding that although he knew attempts were made to start trials, “it still did not take down the remand numbers.” According to Ramjattan, out of the almost 600 persons on remand, about 200 are charged with the capital offence. He noted there are others in jail who are unable to post the bail for their release. The latter situation, he said, has contributed to the high number of inmates in the Camp Street Prison.

No capital

Meanwhile, Prison Director Gladwin Samuels also said that a lot of the major recommendations, including the expansion of the Mazaruni Prison, require capital investment.

With regard to the other recommendations, he told reporters that the Prison Service has gone on a recruitment drive. “Our entry level is actually filled in terms of recruiting persons to man the prison,” he said, while also mentioning that there are several consultancies ongoing at the moment that will serve to guide the implementation of some of the recommendations.

Samuels noted too that the ratio of staff to inmates was being revised. He said that particularly taking into consideration the large number of high-profile prisoners incarcerated, there is now a need not only for more staff in terms of numbers but also quality. Some members of the prison staff are extremely small in stature and more than 50 percent of the staff is female, which can be disadvantageous.

With respect to the administrative side of the prison, the CoI had recommended that “Custodial staffing to be increased immediately to match the operational and management readiness of the Guyana Prison Service.” It was stated that the ratio of female to male custodial staff needed to be reviewed as the current staffing is a recipe for continuous disturbances and security threats to the community at large.

Another key recommendation was the recruitment of retired senior non-commissioned officers from the Guyana Defence Force to increase the capability of custodial supervisory staff in the short term. It said they must be carefully selected and appropriately trained to perform their new duties in keeping with modern prison philosophy.

The report also made recommendations as it related to the welfare of prisoners and prison staff.

It was recommended that the emoluments of prison staff be increased commensurately with the daily risk they face in the execution of their duties in a highly stressful and dangerous environment and a Special Insurance Scheme be established and supported by government to compensate officers in case of injuries or death while executing their daily duties.

It was recommended that threats of physical and psychological harm to officers and families must be dealt with swiftly and effectively within the legal framework. The Prison Officers Association, the report said, must operate more effectively to advocate for better working conditions for officers. The recognition of the heroic acts of prison officers, prisoners and other Joint Services members was also recommended.

Regarding the welfare of prisoners, it was recommended that prisoners’ living conditions be improved to reflect states of humanity and dignity.

The report added that the training programmes for prisoners and their training facilities must match the concepts of modern penal philosophy to reduce recidivism and criminality among incarcerated offenders and the Probation and Social Services Department must play an institutional role in the prisons more effectively.

Bail

With regard to the judiciary, the report emphasised the need for the recognition by magistrates of the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence of accused persons being enforced when considering bail applications.

It was also recommended that the mandatory minimum sentences be abolished, along with de-criminalisation of the possession of minimum amounts of marijuana for personal use. The report urged the establishment and expansion of alternatives to incarceration for those charged with low-level drug offences; proportionality in sentencing; and avoiding preventive detention (remand) in the case of low-level, non-violent offenders.

It was recommended too that comprehensive prison censuses should be undertaken periodically to upgrade and expand criminal justice data systems and ensure timely access to criminal justice information for policy makers and the public.

The report recommended that the Standing Law Revision Commission be resuscitated so as to constantly update legislation; that sentencing guidelines be formally approved, publicised, disseminated and enforced; that judges and magistrates must be trained in application of sentencing guidelines; and that visits to prisons by judges and magistrates be viewed as a constitutive and obligatory aspect of their duties.

Prisoners on remand should be released automatically under the authority of the Prison Director once the time served equals the sentence the offence would attract, the report said. It added that resolutions of legal issues required to abolish preliminary inquiries should be an urgent priority of the judiciary and that a robust programme of community-based sentencing alternatives should be produced in cooperation with all relevant agencies. It recommended the piloting of alternative and community-based sentences for women and juvenile offenders and that incarceration must be a last resort for women offenders and exceptional for mothers and caregivers.

It was recommended that the  Legal Practitioners Act should be amended to promote transparency and accountability in the workings of the Legal Practitioners Committee (LPC) and that the Chancellor must take steps to ensure the workings of the LPC afford “effective protection to clients rather than the protection of wayward attorneys.”

The report also urged that defence attorneys be encouraged to raise the issue of remand as a constitutional violation until minimum acceptable standards of detention are established and that the Guyana Bar Association pay greater attention to the obligation set out in the LPC Code of Conduct to advocate for implementation of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRTP).

With regard to the parole board, it was stated that an assessment of its statutes, procedures and operations needed to be done to make it more purposeful.

It was recommended that the automatic appointment to the Parole Board of Chairs of Prison Visiting Committees (PVCs) be reviewed and guidance manuals be developed within the framework of the SMRTP and introduced through orientation workshops to all members of PVCs and the Parole Board.

There were also recommendations for improved rehabilitation programmes.

Good idea

When the report was handed over on June 1, 2016, President David Granger had said that government was continuing to look at prison reform and keeping the population safe. “We have a good idea what needs to be done. We are gonna be strengthening Mazaruni and we are going to be continuing the process of redeploying prisoners from Georgetown to Mazaruni but the infrastructure at Mazaruni has to be improved,” he had said.

Granger added that government did have a plan to increase the human resources component of the prison system as well as to improve conditions. He said that starting that year, prison officers would receive training at the police academy. “We expect that that would raise their level of competence. The number of prison officers will be augmented so that Mazaruni would have a larger core of prisoner officers and we are going to build into the prison… a team of officers who would be able to respond to incidents like the one that occurred on the 3rd of March. So we should not see the need to call out the defence force and the police force to support the prison service they would have their own capability,” he had said.

Granger pointed out that over the years the prison population had expanded and would have outgrown the infrastructure that was in place. “So we are aware that something has to be done and before we took action we had to know exactly what the commission was particularly referring to because it is in the heart of the city. There are schools, population, homes, business places and we want to make sure that there is no threat to human safety ever again,” he said.

According to Granger before receiving the report, government had taken on some initiatives.  He said that no government would be happy to see people spending most of their lives in the prison system; graduating from prison to prison. He noted that it is for this reason that under the leadership of Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the executive has engaged the judicial branch to look at sentencing policies and alternatives to incarceration.

He spoke of his visit to Mazaruni in the aftermath of the deadly riot to look at conditions there and to determine whether prison life there for both inmates and staff could be improved. He said government looked at improving the production of food, providing inmates with facilities “to alter their behaviour so they don’t have to return to that system….”

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