The way we resolve the prison crisis will demonstrate how civilized we are as a nation

Dear Editor,

I write this letter from the perspective of a former inmate of both the Camp Street and Mazaruni prisons in the 1980s who, after having served a 3 year sentence in both of these institutions has acquired in the process, a firsthand experience of the conditions – including the horrors, brutalities and degradation – of Guyana prison life. It is therefore with an active sense of both the conditions in and the operationalisation of the prisons in Guyana ‒ the kind of experience, which those persons who administer the justice system do not have ‒ that I pen this letter in an attempt to put before the people of Guyana the vagaries of prison life and its impact on the prisoners’ psyche.

The first point I wish to make is this: We in Guyana operate on the premise that as a society which is governed by the rule of law, there is a responsibility on the part of both the citizens and the authorities to respect and uphold the law. In the case of our prisons, there are also laws and rules that are designed to protect the prison as an institution as well as to protect prisoners’ rights. In spite of the existence of these rules and laws, in the real world of incarceration, disputes between inmates and prison officers/warders are often played out in a one-sided way. In almost every instance of a dispute between those antagonists, the inmate is always held to be wrong and the warder deemed to be right. In short, the scales of justice behind the prison walls never appear to be balanced. They are most often weighted against the prisoners, regardless of the circumstances. This kind of situation forces the prisoner into a realization that the prison is not an institution of correction, not a place where one pays the price for violating the laws of the land, but, because of the several unjust acts meted out to them by those in charge of the system, it is more a bastion of degradation and abuse, which leaves those who pass through its gates more bitter with society than when they entered. This is the reality of prison life.

My second point is that in the colonial days it was a requirement of the prison authorities to ensure that prisoners were educated on the rules of the prison, including the extent of the powers of prison warders and the rights and obligations of prisoners during the period of their incarceration. As far as I am aware those days are long gone.

Drawing on my experience as a prisoner I will say here that the principal contradiction in the prison is located in the relationship between prisoners and prison officers. This is an antagonistic relationship, since most inmates would want to regain their freedom as quickly as possible and the officers, in keeping with their mandate, are committed in their resolve to ensure that prisoners serve their time. In a moment this contradiction can explode with deadly force as occurred on two occasions in a period of a year, the most recent being on July 9, 2017. Subsequent to the crisis on July 9th I read in a newspaper a criticism that the prison authorities had information that suggested a possible jailbreak and they did nothing. I don’t know the nature of the information or how credible it was. However, I have serious reservations that the authorities would have had such important information at their disposal and not acted to verify its credibility. Failure to act in light of a report of this magnitude would be interpreted as a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the officer or officers concerned.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it should be noted that in the prison environment rumours of planned escapes are almost a daily occurrence. In that situation it would be irresponsible for the authorities to react on these rumours, willy nilly, since doing so runs the risk of provoking dangerious levels of tension in the prison. To deal effectively with rumours of a pending jailbreak the prison officers/warders, will, on most occasions, be required to lock down the prison and conduct a systematic search of all cells and each prisoner. This is always a risky business since it increases the level of tension in the prison. No responsible officer in charge of a prison, in the context of the situation that existed in the Camp Street Prison, will be inclined to do so without carefully balancing the consequences.

From my experience in prison the following are in general terms, situations that transform the prison environment from one of ‘normalcy’ to one of dangerous levels of tensions: (a) execution of condemned prisoners; (b) when an officer loses the cell key/keys; (c) lock down and search of prison; and (d) jailbreaks and escapes. Note I have deliberately not mentioned fires and riots since I never experienced those situations. These to my mind, are extremely rare occurrences, whereas the issues mentioned above are within the norm.

There is a prevailing view in the society which categorises all prisoners as being ‘violent’. This view facilitates ‘collective’ punishment. I have heard people say, “if they want to set fire in the prison, let them burn in their cells. If they want to riot shoot them down”. These are examples of collective punishment. This view/position attributes responsibility for the fires and riot to all of the thousand plus inmates. This is an erroneous but popularly held view. We often do not take into consideration that the majority of prison inmates are incarcerated for minor offences, a large number are on remand, meaning, they are persons not convicted of any offence but are awaiting trial. Some of them are unable to pay the exorbitant bail fixed by magistrates and some prisoners are mentally sick people. Whether or not you are tried and found guilty of breaking a law, or have been framed for an offence which you cannot disprove or find yourself incarcerated for whatever reason, once you enter the prison, it doesn’t matter, you are legally a prisoner and are treated as one. In fact, from the time you enter through the prison gates, the system is organized to impress that reality on you. It begins with a strip search of your person in the presence of officers. This is a most humiliating experience.

I want to take this opportunity to remind members of this society that from the time the enslavers established the institution of prisons what has followed has been ongoing attempts to escape. Prison escapes have always been a natural response to the dehumanization of persons confined to prison life. It is not a new development and is found in all countries, bar none, where the imprisonment of individuals takes place. What is worrying in recent times in Guyana is that the situation is getting worse and fire and riots are now emerging as regular features of prisoner resistance.

We must face the reality that a prisoner condemned to die has no incentive to remain behind bars. The same is true for a prisoner serving life. For those categories of inmates a run for freedom is always an option. We have to be careful that other categories of prisoners have not begun to feel the same way. In order to avoid the problems which will arise from that situation the prison administrators and those responsible for the justice system in Guyana must ensure that the prison environment is seen and accepted not only as an institution of punishment, but also as one which rehabilitates and prepares the convicted for a life removed from the prison system. If we are unable to guarantee that a prison sentence doesn’t result in serious damage to the health of inmates, or become a death sentence I submit that as a society and a nation we have lost the legal and moral justification to imprison our citizens.

In concluding I am contending that the way we resolve the current prison crisis will demonstrate how civilized we are as a nation. My conviction is that our prisons and the conditions therein will only change fundamentally, when we as a society imprison the rich and powerful for crimes they commit. Once our prisons are seen only as institutions for the incarceration of the poor and powerless there will be no meaningful changes in them.

Yours faithfully,

Tacuma Ogunseye

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