On July 9, 2017, we experienced the worst jailbreak and destruction of the jail in our history. The whole prison in Camp Street was destroyed by arson. The Officers Club, across the street from the prison, was also razed to the ground. Many very dangerous criminals escaped. It was not just the worst incident in Guyana, but the worst in the English-speaking Caribbean.
If we look at the behaviour of the APNU regime since it took power in May 2015, then, we can see that that was an incident waiting to happen. This regime, from its very inception, gave the impression of being soft on crime and criminals. Recall that the Granger administration, almost as soon as its term commenced, began pardoning criminals, releasing many back into the society.
Despite many criticisms and cautions by knowledgeable persons, the process continued. There is no evidence that those released went through any serious rehabilitation programmes.
Some of the crimes that this regime speaks about as not being serious include stealing of cell phones. Yet, we know that Sheema Mangar of East Coast of Demerara was murdered for her phone and that crime remains unsolved. The parents of Ms Mangar continue to grieve the loss of their precious daughter because of a cell phone theft.
Criminals, sensing this sympathy of the regime, began to push for more concessions. More skirmishes began to take place in the Camp Street jail. Police and prison officers began to take less forceful positions in relation to criminals. No doubt, taking heed of the attitude of the regime to crime and the criminals, many appear to believe that they could get into trouble if they took a hard stance against the criminals.
On March 3, 2016, we had a major riot in the Camp Street prison. Many persons, unfortunately, lost their lives. There was a fire, set by some of the prisoners, which killed their fellow inmates. Officers were injured. On March 4, 2016, two very senior Ministers of the government, Messrs Joseph Harmon and Khemraj Ramjattan, went to the prison to meet with the inmates. Not a word in solidarity with the prison officers whose work is so important in keeping our society safe.
Indeed, former Minister of Home Affairs Mr Clement Rohee, had cautioned the government to be careful with their actions, least it be interpreted by the prisoners that the government was tolerant of their behaviour and this could embolden them into taking more such actions. That is what seems to have happened.
The criticism of the police being too harsh appears to have given the criminals a sense of security. The police and prison officers have been cowed. This is what led to the tragic events of July 9, 2017. The criminals destroyed the prison totally, murdered an officer and injured several others. Billions of dollars in property have been lost. More pressure is being put on our already heavily burdened taxpayers.
The regime is blaming the overcrowding of the prisons for the incident. We know that the prisons were overcrowded. It is also true that this is not a recent phenomenon. The overcrowding started a long time ago. This has been a problem since the first PNC government (1964-92). It never led to this type of riot and destruction. Clearly, therefore, this is not the main reason. If the regime felt that overcrowding was the main issue, then why did they put a halt on the reform programme that the PPP/Civic was implementing?
Lusignan was being transformed into a prison to rehabilitate prisoners before releasing them. A great deal of capital work was going on there ‒ new buildings, fencing of the place and preparation for facilities to educate and reform the prisoners.
All this was taking place. It is these facilities that have now come in handy to house those prisoners who have been displaced by the arson from the Camp Street prison. This programme was halted by this APNU regime.
In responding to one of the queries from a journalist on the night of July 9, Minister Ramjattan blamed sugar for halting the building of new facilities. He said the money had to be given to sugar. This is the worst kind of distortion and slander heaped on sugar workers, who are themselves, victims of this uncaring regime.
This government could find money to waste on projects like the D’Urban Park Stadium; they could spend $14M a month on a bottom house to store small medical items; they could spend millions of taxpayers’ money on procuring drugs from what appears to a favoured supplier, while avoiding the bidding process and the National Tender Board. They have no qualms about increasing ministers’ salaries by fifty per cent; increasing the number of ministers and advisors; and finding the money to pay huge amounts for out-of-town ministers housing allowances.
They can allocate money to buy a US$124,000 vehicle for the Prime Minister to ride in and to charter planes to travel abroad. At the same time, they give themselves almost unlimited travelling allowances. They can find money to set up numerous commissions of inquiry, whose recommendations are promptly ignored, as in the case of sugar.
Yet they abandoned the many aspects of the security reform measures started by the PPP/C administration designed to keep our people safe.
This regime has failed the Guyanese people in every sector. The recent tragic events in our prisons are just another example. Unfortunately, it is a tragic and expensive example that stands out as a monument to the APNU+AFC regime’s incompetence.
The government must re-examine their attitude to crime and criminals so that a July 9 should not occur again.