Just over one year after the most deadly disturbance at the Georgetown Prisons in March 2016 in which seventeen prisoners lost their lives, came the most fiery event in its more than one hundred year history. The government led by President Granger and Vice-President and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan have been busy trying to exonerate themselves and the APNU+AFC government of any responsibility. President Granger, whose presidential campaign was predicated on security and good governance, defends Mr Ramjattan while the latter sought to excuse his failures to take meaningful and effective action to fix the broken justice and prison system partly on the necessity to subsidise GuySuCo.
President Granger’s response to the 2016 deaths was his most predictable: a Commission of Inquiry (CoI). Yet he and his government have failed to carry out the single most important and no cost recommendation – “the creation of a High Level Committee focused solely on reducing the cancer of over-crowding, along with a range of ancillary recommendations to improve the engagement of key agencies and to strengthen the professional capacity of the GPS to respond to its diverse challenges.”
Overly deferential to the President to whom the CoI expressed “unbounded gratitude”, the Executive Summary of its report noted that the authors would be “even more satisfied should our findings be acted upon with deliberate haste” and implored the President “in a year’s time to order a review of their effectiveness”. That the number of inmates in the jail actually increased between the two horrific events is a strong indicator that instead of action we had inaction and instead of effectiveness we witnessed negligence on a national scale.
The failure by the administration to publicise the report of the CoI and to table it, let alone debate it in the National Assembly raises serious but unasked questions about the administration’s concern for the death of seventeen persons while in the custody (one can hardly use the word ‘care’) of the State. The silence of the society and human rights activists suggested that at every level, poor lives do not matter.
Had it not been for last week’s event, the country would not have had cause to remind itself about the coalition’s failure to act on the CoI’s recommendation to appoint the High Level Committee. That of course, made the review of the effectiveness of its recommendations one year after, an impossibility. Instead, in what must rank as unfortunate and ironic timing, a day after the most recent event, the media reported another commission of inquiry being established to look into the investigations into a plot to assassinate the President!
The utterances of Mr Ramjattan in the immediate aftermath of the fire have hardly enhanced his reputation, experience and capacity for a senior ministerial portfolio. In fact, they make his favourite theme in the last Parliament of attacking, criticising and mocking his predecessor Mr Clement Rohee, appear as pure political opportunism. Mr Ramjattan’s portfolio is actually narrower than that carried by Rohee and it is difficult to see how he is any better or more effective than Mr Rohee.
On the matter of resources, the 2016 and 2017 Budgets, both of which were tabled in 2016 provided for sums totalling $908 million for the following:
2016: Completion of brick prison; construction, rehabilitation and extension of headquarters, kitchen, living quarters, male prison block and buildings; and provision for cell blocks and cubicles.
2017: Completion of prisons, living quarters, kitchen and headquarters, and provision for Mazaruni Prison.
In speaking about the conditions under which the relocated prisoners were “accommodated” at Lusignan, Mr Ramjattan could well have been speaking about animals rather than human beings, not that animals deserve sub-human treatment. He appears totally oblivious that the Constitution guarantees to every person, including convicted criminals and persons on remand, the right not to “be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment.”
Mr Ramjattan has to shoulder direct responsibility for the administration’s lack of vision and its ineffectiveness in dealing with crime and its management. That he is unable to see this causes complete loss of confidence in him and widespread fear among us as citizens. For President Granger to retain him because of the Cummingsburg Accord would be bad enough and insensitive to the public’s legitimate concerns. To defend him is inexcusable and bodes ill for the country.
Let it be clear however. This letter in no way seeks to exonerate the PPP/C for their own neglect of the state of all our prisons and lockups during their tenure for twenty-three years. They did very little to address recurring problems at the prisons, even after the infamous Mashramani jail-break with its told and untold consequences. Nor did it act on the recommendations of the wide-ranging Disciplined Forces Commission Report headed by retired acting Chief Justice Ian Chang and including President Granger.
He would therefore have been familiar with the grave problems his administration inherited in 2015. The 2016 events would have served as fatal reminders. And yet, here we are …