The June 9 Camp Street prison conflagration that pretty much destroyed this complex continues to spawn myriad news angles to help readers capture the whole emerging picture of what happened, why it happened and what jittery citizens can expect in the form of public safety going forward. This is more especially so since the May 2016 recommendations of the $13 million Commission of Inquiry, headed by former Justice James Patterson, following the unrest at the Camp Street prison which resulted in the deaths of 17 inmates.
But the one news story that caught my interest and spurred my decision to write was the Stabroek News article, ‘Jagdeo slams government for prison unrest,’ (July 11), in which he described the tragedy as an outrageous spectacle of a “bumbling, inept and incompetent” government.
I have previously characterized the coalition regime in similar terms in different matters, but this tragedy cannot be solely linked to the coalition regime. Following the Mash Day 2002 jailbreak, which spawned Guyana’s biggest crime spree and claimed a large number of lives over a four-year period, the Bharrat Jagdeo administration appeared at its wits end to find a solution to a badly compromised police force.
So, it turned to the British in 2006 for help to reform the police, and the British responded with a $6B security sector grant with one stipulation: British police officers must be allowed to work alongside local police officers during the reformation process.
The Jagdeo administration balked at the stipulation and, according to former HPS, Dr Roger Luncheon, the rejection of the offer was an unwillingness to compromise Guyana’s sovereignty by allowing the British to conduct live firing exercises in Guyana’s hinterland. The British Embassy clarified that assertion via a press release that the exercise did take place without live firing.
Editor, while Guyanese long suspected the rejection had to do with the Jagdeo administration not wanting the British police discovering the extent of politics and criminality in Guyana, what Guyanese may never know was the extent to which the British security sector reform could have positively impacted not only the Guyana Police Force, but the Guyana Prison Service. After all, the prison system is an integral part of any public safety/security sector.
After that rejection, Guyana saw a series of piecemeal efforts at security sector reform, including the proposal to hire former New York Police and Corrections Commissioner, Bernard Kerik, for US$200,000 and another US-based private security firm for about US$400,000. But it was the local private sector, which seemed to understand one of the root causes for the dysfunctional security sector when it expressed “deep satisfaction” with a security plan unveiled by then Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee in 2013 and warned that for the measures to be successful pay levels for all personnel in the police, prison and fire services had to be raised. (‘Private sector welcomes security reforms but says pay must be boosted,’ SN, January 4, 2013).
Whether there was a link between low pay among police, prison and fire service personnel and the propensity for corruption in the disciplined services remains to be officially authenticated, but as recently as 2016, the USAID put out a report that suggested “a significant need to reform the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and strengthen its investigations and prosecutions”. And citing information from the Government of Guyana Justice System Strategy, 2006-2010, the report further stated that an estimated 90 per cent of prosecutions are unsuccessful making the GPF “the least-trusted institution in the country’. (‘There is significant need to reform the Guyana Police Force -USAID Report,’ KN, Aug 23, 2016).
Then there was a KN report on Sep 3, 2016, which stated, “A US$946,000 (G$190M) grant from the United States is expected to go a long way in removing the ‘corrupt and inefficient’ elements of Guyana’s criminal justice system while instilling in it, mechanisms that are guaranteed to strengthen it.”
Add to the foregoing reports the other troubling reports of prison warders being in collusion with prisoners in what can best be described as a vibrant organized contraband business behind prison walls, and we can get a picture of what is wrong with Guyana’s broken security sector and efforts needed to fix it. Even the judiciary is caught in the sticky web as we see rulings or decisions that appear to make no sense given that persons were being remanded or sentenced for non-violent and petty crimes to a burgeoning, over-populated prison system.
Did it have to take this prison tragedy for the authorities to activate the early release of persons charged with or convicted of non-violent or petty crimes? And when will a law be passed to stop jailing persons caught with ganja utensils or minuscule amounts of weed?
Anyway, make no mistake about it: the coalition may be inept or incompetent because it lacks the right people or it is incapable of expeditiously undoing over two decades of institutionalized corruption, but Jagdeo and the PPP have to take some responsibility for the current state of affairs affecting the police and the prison system, rather than use the tragedy to score cheap political points. They missed a huge golden opportunity when they rejected that British offer.