The prison crisis and public unease

The main reason why the recent Georgetown Prison fire and its attendant consequences will remain etched in public consciousness for some time yet, has to do with the implications of the occurrence, or rather, the succession of occurrences, for citizens’ perceptions of the status of public safety. There is a considerable body of opinion that holds, entirely justifiably, that over many decades, government has failed miserably to act with anything even remotely resembling a sense of urgency to address the absurd anomaly of having the country’s major prison sited in the heart of the capital.

Contextually, there had always been warning signs, including at least two preceding ones in relatively recent years, that the occurrence of a tragedy on the scale of that which occurred on Sunday, July 9 could one day happen. It was, in the main, the indifference of the authorities to those portents that served to consolidate the hold which the inmates had, over time, established on the prison and which precipitated the July 9 disaster.

Ours is a prison system that has been, from as far back as we can remember, riddled with operational and administrative fault lines, not the least of which are the dangerously destabilizing relationships between inmates and the outside world that allow for the movement of cellular phones, weapons, weapon components and narcotics into the jail. The prison authorities can hardly deny that these illegal and dangerous lines of communication have been continually enabled by corrupt functionaries within the prison system and that the considerable loopholes in the management regime at the prison affords its inmates a generous measure of ‘empowerment’ which, over time, was continually being used to undermine the prison system.

Nothing in the nature of a national emergency occurs in our Republic without it being visited by the curse of the political blame game, so that while the attendant cat-sparring by rival political groups regarding who’s to blame for the July 9 disaster may be irrelevant, the capacity of that kind of behaviour to distract from any sort of collective remedial initiative can be enormously destabilizing. Much the same scenario is playing out again.

One must make the point, of course, that it is the incumbent political administration that must ultimately account for the events that attended the near complete destruction of the prison and its various consequences, including the public security situation that now obtains. That is simply another way of saying that the possession of power carries with it a commensurate measure of responsibility. At the same time the historical circumstances from which the current crisis derives means that blame for the public security circumstance  in which we now find ourselves must be placed at the feet of each succeeding political administration. Thus the sterile and, in practical terms, pointless political post mortem of the prison fire and its spin offs has done no more than provide a frustrating reminder that our political culture is yet to find its way to that level of maturity that allows for our leaders/factions to sink differences and put heads together in times of national emergency.

As an aside, the scale of the prison crisis, including the attendant sense of a serious public safety/public security compromise meant that such public calls as were made for the removal/resignation of the Public Security Minister were to be expected. While the final decision on that score would have been a political one, the public call was entirely legitimate. Governments in Guyana, unfortunately, still seem unable to make distinctions between gestures that amount to political witch-hunting and those that are part of a process of holding those in authority accountable, as happens in countries that subscribe to democratic behaviour. Truth be told, the Minister in question appeared less than sure of himself in the immediate aftermath of the prison fire and one can think of other countries in which he may not have been spared the consequences of that shortcoming, particularly at a time when clarity and reassurance were required in an environment of a high level public unease.

Since the events of the prison fire and its spin-offs some measure of public reassurance has been reclaimed in view of the robust public/police response that has led to the swift recapture of most of the escapees. On the other hand, the frequent post July 9 upheavals at Lusignan arising out of the patent inability of that facility to properly accommodate and secure the significant overspill from the Georgetown jail fire provides an unwelcome reminder that we may well still be in the midst of a worrisome public security situation.

As things stand, Lusignan is serving as a sort of ill-equipped holding pen for considerable numbers of restless and frequently confrontational prisoners. They are, in all likelihood, of the view that it is to their advantage that the national public safety issues that derive from their circumstances remain a matter of public interest even if it remains, simultaneously, a matter of public unease.

Truth be told, the expeditious completion of a Commission on Inquiry into the July 9 occurrence ought to come and go with relative speed. Setting aside the particular details of the occurrence itself, a huge amount of the background would have already been covered in previous probes. If the authorities are to be honest, why the fire and its consequences happened is really no great mystery. Unfortunately, precedent suggests that the government’s real weakness in this regard has to do with the interregnum between the pursuit of commissions of inquiry and the implementation of the attendant recommendations. In this instance it may wish to remind itself that prevarication could render an already worrisome public safety circumstance much worse.

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