Declaring that the prison system is now a national emergency, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) today called for an urgent bipartisan approach to the problem and it said that neither the governing APNU+AFC nor the opposition PPP/C could be absolved of responsibility.
“A situation of this gravity, instead of trading barbs, should see constructive engagements between the President and Leader of the Opposition. The country is dealing with a national security crisis and it’s imperative to pursue collective approach in addressing same and determining a way forward”, the GTUC said.
It said that these engagements should be occurring inside and outside of Parliament.
“Reactionary and ad-hocery approaches-evident in (the) 9th July Camp Street unrest and fire, 24th July Lusignan breakout, 29th July Lusignan turmoil and interspersed conflicts- coupled with treatment of prisoners and the condition prison officers are asked to work, point to: 1) escalating of the crisis and, 2) threat to the safety of citizens, including the rights of prisoners and officers”, the union movement said.
The GTUC said it recognised improvements by the security forces in recapturing techniques, resulting in the minimising of casualties, and the overall handling of situations which clearly had potential to get worse.
“Acknowledgment of these do not absolve Government- APNU+AFC and PPP/C-from accountability for putting prison reform on the backburner, prioritising other issues of lesser import, and ignoring the problems that have been festering for years”, it declared.
The GTUC said it is also concerned at the “level of apathy for the incarcerated, who though accused or convicted of running foul of the law are human beings with inalienable rights”. It said that condemning them to a “life of misery and deeming justifiable any inhumane treatment meted out would suggest society is losing its moral compass, its humanity. The incarcerated are there at the behest of the State that has responsibility for their safety and existence consistent with international standards. Commitment to the rule of law and human decency will ensure these basics are being met”.
The government had been criticised for the conditions in which the prisoners evacuated from the July 9th Camp Street prison fire were kept at Lusignan. They were held for a number of days in what was effectively a flooded pasture and this bred further discontentment and revolts.
“Incidents over the past weeks were bound to happen and there will continue to be similar scenarios. Lusignan Prison was already overcrowded, further burdened with having to accommodate inmates from the overcrowded Camp Street Prison. The situation became more untenable when high to low risk inmates were placed together and under conditions akin to a camp out or picnic style. This is bound to cause conflict and bring to the fore inadequacies of the security system- including lighting, camera, monitoring and intelligence gathering. The ratio of prisoners to prison officers is also a problem”, the GTUC said.
It argued that in this volatile environment there is no place for complacency neither can the Executive do it alone.
“The absence of proactive and carefully thought out and implemented policies continue to result in logistical nightmares. Hopefully it is not lost on the administration the welfare of the prisoners whose actions are signalling the existence of human rights and environmental crises. In many instances conditions are not better than (for) holding animals which animal rights activists will rightly condemn”, the GTUC railed.
It also rapped the opposition for what it said was its scoring of political points on the crisis.
“GTUC cautions the Opposition in its ill-advised strategy to turn a national emergency into a partisan political activity. The voracious and opportunist appetite to add fuel to fire, seeking to take advantage of crises partly responsible for must cease. The PPP/C is equally responsible for the decay in the prison system having had the opportunity for 23 years to improve it but did nothing substantial about it. Over years the cries of prisoners, families, society and the international community to address prison reform were ignored or given lukewarm treatment. Society remembers former Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee’s response that `prison is not a five-star hotel’ when public attention was brought to the deplorable conditions at Brickdam (lockups)”, the statement read.
The GTUC also said that the nation does not need another Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to admit what has been known for years and not being attended to. It pointed out that in the last 16 years there have been several reports on prison reform including the Guyana Prisons Ten Year Strategic Development Plan (2001-2011), the British Prison Reform (2001), Justice Cecil Kennard CoI (2002 jailbreak), the Disciplined Services Commission Report (2004), the Lloyd Nickram Study (2009), and Justice James Patterson CoI (2016 jailbreak).
The TUC noted that sitting on the 2004 Commission was the current President and Commander-in-Chief David Granger.
“It is not lost on GTUC that recommendations in the 2016 CoI which could have easily been implemented were only acted on after the 9th July unrest. The other reports were done during the Bharrat Jagdeo presidency. Recommendations from the stated reports must now be used in determining the future of the prison system”, the union movement said.
The GTUC also rejected any suggestion that the prison system should be privatized.
It argued that the present situation is overwhelming the prison officers and stretching their limited resources to the brink.
“Over the years they have been treated like watchmen, deprived of the requisite skills, staffing complement and tools to competently deliver as required in modern prison system. While the crises at Camp Street and Lusignan have seen reactionary management by the Joint Services, they nonetheless ought to be commended. Their performance, based on the available resources, has helped to contain the level of anxiety in the society and bringing about some level of reassurance”, the GTUC added.