As part of his development of a security reform action plan, UK expert Russell Combe was expected to submit an interim report by the end of last June to the government. It would be of great interest to the public whether, as a result of his visits here and interaction with prison officials, Mr Combe had discerned an existential threat in the prison system and warned of such although there was no evidence of any emergency action by the government prior to the recent mayhem. To the contrary, there appeared to be a very laid back approach to the penitentiaries and their known problems. Whatever the contours of his plan it is clear that given the extreme prison violence of recent weeks Mr Combe will have to do a reboot.
Under the revived UK Security Sector Reform Action Plan, Mr Combe is expected to come up with a comprehensive schema for the entire security sector. Given recent developments in the prisons and elsewhere the government would be well-advised to have a second look at the way ahead.
For nearly 20 years, critics of the Guyana Police Force, in particular, have raised concerns about the insidiousness of the fall in standards and the corrupting of the force which became prominent in the 1980s and which had steadily gathered a momentum that has taken on a life of its own and can’t be easily reversed. While there have been bright sparks along the way like the work of Crime Chief Blanhum, there is far too much mediocrity and poor performance. It has suffused all parts of the force.
Such is its ascendancy that the average person is deeply cynical about the outcome of investigations, worried about the level of corruption in all types of transactions, whether on the traffic beats or elsewhere, and regaled with tales of patronage and influence-peddling in the force. During the height of the crime wave following the 2002 jail-break, the force was targeted by the escapees and suffered grievous losses. One now defunct unit of the force had been notorious for engaging in extrajudicial killings and these elements were later subsumed in the Roger Khan organisation which went on a crime spree of its own, severely damaging the credibility of the force and renting the fabric of law and order.
Reversing this magnitude of disorder and dysfunction isn’t attainable by cosmetic changes or the shifting around of key personnel. These entrenched maladies become virtually impossible to dislodge and usually shade all manner of impropriety and transgressions. The anomie also wields a deadening hand on esprit de corps, leaving the force divided and at deep odds.
Absorbing the testimony of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the very dubious alleged plot to assassinate the President provided a courtside view of the internal shambles of the force. In so far as some may believe that procedures were not adeptly followed by the police in this matter, one can readily deduce that the majority of investigations taken on by this force is blighted by all of the defects that have been highlighted in the hearing. No investigation would be immune.
Friday’s cross-examination at the CoI of Assistant Commissioner of Police, David Ramnarine laid bare the shocking state of affairs in the upper echelons of the force; the backbiting, the malevolence and the deeply held doubts about the rectitude of the behaviour of very senior officers. The testimony and questioning painted a picture of a force falling upon itself and without the inspiration and conviction to propel the change that is so necessary for the force.
Root and branch reform and intelligence-led policing are what have long been demanded for the Guyana Police Force. Anything that falls short of that would be wholly unacceptable and a wasting of the effort to bring lasting transformation of the force. Minister Ramjattan and the government must carefully examine what has been proposed for the police and the prison service and decide whether it is enough. Should it be as radical as installing experienced law enforcers from outside of the force who can easily identify wayward trends and begging arresting those while professionalising the force?
The same failures cited in relation to the police force can be transposed to the prisons. Beginning with the killing of a warder and the destruction of the Camp Street jail by fire on July 9th, it is patent that the prison service is in need of a major overhaul, not tinkering. The breakout at Lusignan on July 24 and the other eruptions of violence and dissent point to a shocking loss of control of the prison population.
In these circumstances, the tendency naturally arises to apply undue force during emergencies whereas properly trained officers could quell such situations in a variety of ways. The shooting of 16 prisoners at Lusignan two Saturdays ago with pellets and rubber bullets during renewed unrest and the killing of a prisoner at the Timehri jail on Friday while he was said to be trying to escape represent a gross and unacceptable escalation in the use of force against prisoners. While it is understood that the prisons directorate is aware that any other major upheavals would likely force widespread changes in the hierarchy, this circumstance cannot permit the excessive and deadly use of gunfire. No fleeing prisoner, as was the case on Friday can justifiably be fatally shot. Something went badly wrong on Friday. There must be an impartial investigation of both of these cases.
Two years on, President Granger and the APNU+AFC government have been ensnared in the worst prison crisis in the independence history of the country and retrieving the situation requires urgent steps.