Electronic prison records

On a mundane Sunday afternoon on July 9 last, a remarkable thing occurred: the deeply ingrained inertia and reactionary mindset that characterises the current administration was suddenly and dramatically exposed.

The near total destruction of the Georgetown Prison – all of the wooden structures being razed to the ground – has now completely overshadowed the political rhetoric and equivocation that has characterized the handling of the administration of the Georgetown Prison for over two decades.

The fiery inferno that reduced the penitentiary to rubble and dust has displaced several hundred inmates who are now mostly corralled in the prison at Lusignan. Shortly after, the magistracy sprang into action travelling to the Lusignan Prison to release some 22 inmates on bail, leaving us to ponder once more as to what grounds are used by the magistracy to grant, set and deny bail in the ordinary course of business in the courts of justice.

The next few days, weeks and months will continue to generate a hive of activity around this destruction at Lot 12 Camp Street. Already, more prisoners are being moved from the Lusignan camp to other prison locations around the country.

The political opposition has already taken aim at the coalition government, with the Opposition Leader labelling the government “bumbling, inept, and incompetent.” The Private Sector Commission has come out with a recommendation for privatising the prison system.

With all the commotion and knee jerk reactions in full play less than a week since the prison was set on fire and burnt to the ground, allegedly to facilitate the escape of several dangerous criminals, we think it might be necessary to look at a few of the smaller pieces of the puzzle.

For instance, there seems to be no functioning digitized register of the inmates, with detailed static information, such as mug shots taken with prisoner identification numbers, national identification card details, fingerprints, date of birth, next of kin, known addresses, and so on.

There also seem to be no updating of fluid information, such as serious actions committed while in prison, any disciplinary actions taken by the warders, sicknesses warranting hospitalisation or specialised medical treatment, etc. In short, there seems to be no detailed profile created of every single inmate incarcerated therein which has been stored electronically making remote access available to those with the clearance to access this information.

When we put this against government’s recent announcement about making government vehicles internet ready, it does give the impression that the administration has not yet conceptualised a comprehensive approach to record-keeping and access.

As a consequence, except for the most recent, the prison authorities are scrambling around in the dark trying to identify prisoners apparently from memory rather than from records. The prisoners themselves are reportedly not cooperating in helping to identify the unknown missing, contributing to the appearance of a charade in the entire proceedings.

In all this, the known missing prisoners are still eluding capture, and citizens would understandably be very concerned about the activities of these dangerous men who are said to be armed. With the inmates not being issued any form of standard prison attire, the ability of the escapees to immediately blend in following their escape must have been one of the easier manoeuvres that they would have executed that day.

So as the governing authorities make the mad scramble to fix the big ticket issues, and to divert blame and attention from those culpable for this history making occurrence, with photo ops and mixed messages, we are left to ponder as to whether the little steps are still being ignored in all this.

Prisoners are being shuttled around the country dressed as ordinary civilians, without detailed information profiles being completed with picture identification attached because it has not been stored electronically with back-up retrieval systems in place. Prisoners in other prisons around the country very likely are being held under similar conditions, with authorities possibly unable to produce detailed information as to the number of inmates and the status of their incarceration without a manual search in written records.

It is expected that stop-gap mechanisms will have to be put in place to address this unprecedented occurrence, but the devil is in the details, and this entire episode has proven that the details are being greatly underestimated and consequently ignored.

Just over a year ago in June 2016, President Granger while accepting the report on the Commission of Enquiry into the earlier conflagration in 2016 which was contained, but at the loss of 17 lives, acknowledged the unacceptable circumstances surrounding the penal system in Guyana.

“We have to understand that we inherited a prison system and the three main prisons were built during the reign of Queen Victoria. They are all over a century and a quarter old, some older and the two newest prisons (Timehri and Lusignan) are really auxiliaries to the three main prisons. Over the years, the prison population has grown and, unfortunately, the population has outgrown the infrastructure, which was designed over a century ago. So we are aware that something must be done and before we take action, we had to find out what the conditions were at the Georgetown Prison because it is at the heart of the city and there are schools, there are people, there are business places, and we want to ensure that there’s never a threat to human safety ever again.”

Having summed up the reality and the challenges so succinctly, it boggles the mind as to how this catastrophe was allowed to happen.

It engages our attention as to what systems are going to be put in place within the entire construction of the penal system in Guyana to prevent a similar occurrence.