The people of Guyana are yet to arrive at a consensus about how to address crime and punishment

Dear Editor,

The news that 13 prisoners escaped from the makeshift Lusignan Prison, and there was renewed unrest in the Camp Street prison makes it difficult at this juncture to have a comprehensive, objective discussion, on where and with whom responsibility for the 2017 Camp Street Prison riot lies. When we add some of the inherent problems the country is faced with ‒ (a) political polarization; (b) social and class prejudices; and (c) emotions and fear – the task of analysing the situation in our attempts at arriving at a decision as to the reasons for what occurred, becomes more difficult. These negative conditions have always existed in this society. However, they have become more entrenched in the minds of the people since the most recent jailbreak and fire. Citizens remember our horrific experiences of 15 years ago after prisoners escaped from the Camp Street Prison. I will submit here that, in spite of these concerns, there is some value in using the heightened public interest to promote some degree of understanding, and I hope, acceptance, of this complex social/economic/ and human problem.

I believe that on this most important national issue, we, the people of Guyana, are yet to arrive at a consensus on how to address these problems. On the issue of crime and punishment in the country we are still miles apart on what our approach to it must be. The present administration came to office at a time when Guyana was facing its deepest crisis in the social, economic and political spheres. Corruption was rampant and the cost of living was high. Every area of national life was negatively impacted. Of great relevance to the crime/punishment debate must be the role of the criminalization of the state, which took place under the PPP/C, and the corrupting influence it had on all of the institutions in the society and on the public’s consciousness. It is against these hard realities that the recent jailbreak and fire took place. The responses of both the government and the society must be seen and appreciated in the above context.

President David Granger to his credit, after taking office has demonstrated leadership on the need for prison reform and the need for human treatment of incarcerated citizens. He used the instrument of the presidential pardon to release offenders convicted of minor crimes. This policy became a controversial issue with the opposition PPP leading the charge. In the process they accused the President of implementing a policy that is soft on criminals. For the opposition, political mileage was the name of the game. This for them was more important than addressing the problem of overcrowding in the prisons, and giving young male offenders and women, who were convicted of minor offences, a second chance. The government’s intention to initiate new approaches in dealing with offenders was not seen by the PPP as an enlightened policy. They deliberately set about to cause hysteria by taking advantage of the citizens’ fear. The opposition propaganda resonated far beyond its own constituency.

The same tactic was used when the President expressed his opinion that he wanted to see the police apprehending offenders, rather than shooting and killing them. The opposition and government detractors wasted no time and propagandized that the President was encouraging crime and criminals and, in doing so, making them feel they could act with impunity. These detractors chose to ignore the sound logic and thinking behind the President’s position, that is, a dead man is of no help to the police and security forces in their job of defeating crime and dismantling a criminal enterprise. It is clear that the opposition PPP and its supporters’ activism were directed against the use of intelligence gathering as an effective tool in the Guyana Police Force’s crime-fighting apparatus.

I wish to focus here on the criticisms in the media that the government did nothing to implement the recommendations of the CoI into the 2016 prison riot that resulted in 17 inmates being burnt to death in their cells. Those – as is the case with the political opposition ‒ who argue that the government did nothing are merely engaged in propagandizing a ridiculous position, Or, they are unaware of what the government has done in terms of implementing recommendations from the CoI. An objective criticism would be that the regime was unable or failed to implement significant aspects of the CoI recommendations. But in so far as Guyana is concerned, every issue is a zero sum game, with the intention to make political mileage or to achieve public recognition, even if to do so means taking advantage of the masses’ vulnerability on this sensitive matter of crime. In a cynical way we shortchange ourselves as a nation by our failure to separate polemics from clinical examination of social/economic issues.

The timely intervention which was made by the Chairman of the Prison CoI (Sunday Stabroek, July 16) adds some balance to the debate on the issue of responsibility.  Justice James Patterson said that neither the President nor the Minister of Public Security should be blamed for the prison riot that resulted in the destruction of the Camp Street jail. He also made the point that it is unfair to accuse the government of not putting in place the CoI recommendations, since many are not possible in the short and medium term, bearing in mind limited resources, both institutional and financial.

Mr Henry Jeffrey also in his column, ‘Future Notes’ published in the Stabroek News on July 19 captioned, ‘Class, ethnicity and jail’ made an excellent contribution to the debate which I recommend to readers.

My engagement with the critics should not be seen to mean that I believe the APNU+AFC government has done everything in its power to make good on the CoI. It is my view that sufficient attention and resources were not dispensed to deal with the potential prison crisis which the CoI was intended to prevent.

I end by posing this question to readers in the hope that they will answer to themselves, truthfully. Would the country have accepted the government implementing a policy which would have allowed the same categories and numbers of inmates to get early release, self or reduced bail to address the overcrowding in the prison, if it was not burnt down? My own judgement is that the President and government would have come under serious, public pressure and possibly street demonstrations similar to the parking meter protest. To the extent that the society accepts the measures stated above, it is only because people are convinced that given the situation it is almost impossible to do otherwise.

Yours faithfully,

Tacuma Ogunseye   

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