The public deserves answers on the Camp Street Prison

Dear Editor,

The recent fire at the Camp Street Prison was a tragedy which concerns all Guyanese. The public’s frustration and mounting questions relating to the prison fires, setting aside all other security concerns, must not be shrugged off as an attempt to cast blame or to politicize these horrific incidents. There are genuine and serious questions for which the public deserves some answers from the relevant authorities. Answers to any questions relating to these incidents benefit both the public and the government. For the public such answers help build trust and confidence in the institutions of government. For the government, such answers help to determine whether such tragedies could have been prevented or whether negligence, poor judgement, poor management, or other factors were the underlying causes. In this regard, I believe the President and the Minister of Public Security’s statements fell terribly short in providing clarity and the assurance of safety to the public. In fact, their statements raise more questions surrounding whether or not these incidents could have been prevented and if so why they weren’t.

According to an article in the Guyana Chronicle titled ‘Don’t blame Ramjattan’(July 14), the President said, “the Minister inherited a broken prison system and should not be blamed for the two Georgetown fires in March 2016 and last Sunday”.  Unfortunately, this statement does not absolve the Minister from taking responsibility for these incidents. This is the sole responsibility of the Ministry and Minister of Public Security. For argument’s sake, let’s accept that the Minister inherited a broken prison system, what has the Minister done since taking office to fix the system to ensure the safety and security of all Guyanese, especially since he knew he was inheriting a broken prison system?

Whatever fixes were made, assuming some were made, they certainly didn’t prevent the March 2016 fire. At this juncture, what additional assessments were done and security measures put in place immediately afterwards to ensure all existing facilities are free from similar faults and the safety and security of both inmates and the public were guaranteed?

According to the President, he was aware of the decrepit state of the infrastructure at all the country’s prison facilities more than 14 years ago, when he was a member of the Disciplined Forces Commission of Inquiry. If 14 years ago these facilities were in a decrepit state and the current administration inherited a broken system, why was securing all prison facilities not the number one priority of the current administration, given the public safety and security risk any breaches in the prison system pose to families, businesses, communities and the economy? Even if it was not the number one priority, but was among the top priorities of the administration, what has the Ministry of Public Security done to ensure all buildings currently housing inmates are secure?

Minister Ramjattan’s argument that support for the sugar industry somehow limits the government’s ability to construct a new prison facility is more of a political talking point than a policy response to a primary responsibility of the government. The Minister’s statement does not add up in light of the fact that in the 2016 budget, the Ministry of Public Security was allocated almost $6 billion more than its predecessor received in 2015. Total allocations for the Ministry of Public Security for 2017 are $17.3 billion, an increase of 24 per cent over 2016. I don’t have an estimate at the time of writing, but I am willing to guess that a new prison facility would not cost $6 billion, and even if it did, $6 billion is a lot of money and could pay for some significant enhancement to the current facilities. So, what portion of the $6 billion was used to fix the broken system or facilities? And if so, what in the prison system was fixed?

Providing such answers to the public would allow people to make informed judgements about what went wrong, what could have been avoided and what not, and more importantly reassure the public. Only then can Minister Ramjattan be vindicated and the public could have confidence in the Ministry to ensure its security.

The hallmark of good democratic governance is transparency and full accountability. When people pay taxes, they are taking monies that could have been spent on improving their own lives and those of their families to pay for the greater good of society. Naturally, when tragedies such as these occur, taxpayers who are footing the bill of the government are going to ask questions for which they deserve answers.

Yours faithfully,

Dhanraj Singh