Prison, fire service and police force should have jointly investigated Camp Street fire; CoI unnecessary

Dear Editor,

As I predicted, we will have a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the fires at Camp Street Prisons. The coalition government seems addicted to this mechanism as a method to address serious problems confronting the nation. This obsessive resort to CoIs is unhealthy.  It is a colossal and unnecessary financial burden on the treasury.  It is a strategy to avoid and evade ministerial and other official responsibilities and it is an avenue to provide lucrative financial appointments to political favourites.

In this case, the Guyana Prison Service, in conjunction with the Guyana Fire Service and the Guyana Police Force, should jointly undertake an investigation and provide their findings along with recommendations to the subject Minister, who should then take it to Cabinet. Hopefully at Cabinet, as was extant under the PPP/C government, there is a sub-committee which deals exclusively with public security and justice issues where this matter can be thoroughly examined and then returned to Cabinet for action.

Before so doing, an input should be solicited from the parliamentary oversight Committee for Public Security; better yet, an input from the National Assembly itself. At the said parliamentary committee, a contribution can be invited from important civil society organizations like the private sector, the Guyana Bar Association, the Guyana Human Rights Association, etc, as well as, of course, experts. These are all established mechanisms that are funded by public monies whose mandate it is to address these very issues.

This methodological approach would not cost taxpayers tens of millions and it is clothed with the national apparel which is required for a tragedy of this magnitude. In contrast, a CoI would be devoid of this multi-faceted and national aura and would not embrace that wide variety of skill-sets, but would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Indeed, I predict that their report would consist largely of that which would be presented to them by the Guyana Fire Service, the Guyana Prison Service and the Guyana Police Force. We would then have the public spectacle of ‘hearings’ and the photo opportunity of the presentation of a report whose recommendations, we may later discover, are not being implemented.

The above apart, there are certain initiatives which can be embarked upon immediately because they are so essential to redressing the situation. The truth is that they should have been done a long time ago.

The Attorney General should immediately begin to work on a Bail Act. Work had already commenced on a draft Bill while I held that office. This law will bring regularization to the caprice and plain unlawfulness which so often permeate the exercise of the discretion to grant bail in the Magistrate’s Court, and to some extent in the High Court. Additionally, the expeditious hearing of bail applications in the High Court must be institutionalized. In the not so distant past, bail petitions were heard every Friday morning. In my view, this system worked, both because of its certainty and regularity. It is imperative that a like policy be implemented as soon as possible.

A few years ago, a senior legal practitioner was given a consultancy to do guidelines on sentencing. This report is with the judiciary. Efforts must be made to have these guidelines reviewed if necessary because of the passage of time, or immediately implemented. The judiciary should be invited along with the Bar, to engage itself in educational seminars on matters such as the granting of bail and sentencing policies in order to establish consistency and predictability which are so fundamental to the smooth functioning of the criminal justice system.

Greater use of the plea bargaining system and paper committals must be encouraged. We already have the requisite statutory mechanisms in place. However, experience has shown that they are under-utilized. The Director of Public Prosecutions, the Guyana Police Force, the judiciary and the private Bar need to collaborate in terms of their efforts in this regard. Public awareness programmes should be the vehicle used to sell these concepts to the public. Clearly, lawyers at the private Bar are not doing enough. The associations representing lawyers must be enlisted. Several years ago, we enacted a Lay Magistrates Act. It was never brought into force. The responsibility to do so lies with the Chancellor of the Judiciary. This Act should be brought into force and the system that it prescribes should be implemented. It will have an impact in reducing the workload of legally trained magistrates whose functional priority must remain serious offences. The lay magistrates would dispose of the minor cases.

There needs to be more frequent sittings of magistrates’ courts outside George-town, more particularly, in the outlying areas. This initiative had already started under the PPP/C administration and was boosted by the construction of more courthouses along with courthouses constructed with residential capacity for magistrates at hinterland locations. This is to facilitate magistrates remaining at those locations for longer periods, thereby permitting more cases to be heard and determined. Along the coast, magistrates courts must sit daily for a full eight-hour period. More judges should be assigned to do trials at the Assizes.

As far as possible, the Court of Appeal must sit daily. There must be the full implementation of the recommendations of the Disciplined Forces Commission Report, in so far as they are relevant. The prison reforms which had started under the PPP administration should resume their implementation. If there are any changes or modifications, then they should be made. One thing is certain: reforms are needed, or else, there is bound to be another fiery calamity. We can procrastinate, but it will be at our own peril.

The above initiatives are by no means intended to be exhaustive, but they must rank among the measures which must be pursued. You would note that they are all ministerial and sector-driven initiatives which do not require a CoI for their conception or their implementation.

I am not oblivious to the fact that political critics will ask why I, as Attorney General, did not pursue those very measures since most of them would have fallen under my sector.

The truth is, I started to work on and in some instances, implement many of these initiatives. Copious submissions in writing from me on some of these matters ought to be found in the National Commission on Law and Order, chaired by Minister Clement Rohee, of which I was a member and in the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Justice and Security.

The other fundamental truth is that the government of which I was a part, lasted just over three years and was a parliamentary minority. As a result, a tremendous amount of time and energy were expended in addressing national budget cuts and resultant litigation; the gagging of former Minister Clement Rohee and resultant litigation; the voting down of nationally important Bills like the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Bills and the Customs (Amendment) Bill, and resultant litigation, all of  which continue to cause immeasurable economic damage and continue to cost the country millions of taxpayer dollars. This was accompanied by the rejection of important national projects, for example, the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project, which condemned this nation to decades more poverty. All the above were compliments of the AFC and APNU politicking in the 10th Parliament.

The final fundamental truth is that in 23 years of government, the PPP never had such an annual back-to-back tragedy at the Camp Street Prisons. Hence, there was never this degree of urgency.

Yours faithfully,

Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP

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