There should be constructive engagements between Granger and Jagdeo on the prisons crisis

Dear Editor, 

The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) has been carefully studying the responses to the prison incidents over the last three weeks and holds the view the problems are those of a national emergency which necessitate a bipartisan approach through debates and engagements in and out of the National Assembly.

A situation of this gravity, instead of trading barbs, should see constructive engagements between the President and Leader of the Opposition. The country is dealing with a national security crisis and it’s imperative to pursue a collective approach in addressing same and determining a way forward. Both sides are being paid by the citizens to manage their affairs and on this issue, where our safety is at risk, it must take priority.

Reactionary and ad hoc approaches, evident in 9th July Camp Street unrest and fire, 24th July Lusignan break out, and 29th July Lusignan turmoil,  coupled with the treatment of prisoners and the conditions under which prison officers are asked to work, point to an escalation of the crisis and a threat to the safety of citizens as well as the rights of prisoners and officers.

GTUC recognises the improvement in recapturing techniques, resulting in the minimising of causalities, and the overall handling of situations which clearly had the potential to get worse. Acknowledg-ment of these do not absolve the government and PPP/C from accountability for putting prison reform on the backburner, prioritising other issues of lesser import, and ignoring problems that have been festering for years.

GTUC is concerned at the level of apathy for the incarcerated, who though accused or convicted of running afoul of the law are human beings with inalienable rights. Condemning them to a life of misery and deeming justifiable any inhumane treatment meted out to them would suggest society is losing its moral compass, its humanity. The incarcerated are there at the behest of the state which has responsibility for their safety and existence consistent with international standards. Commitment to the rule of law and human decency will ensure these basics are met.

The incidents which took place over the past weeks were bound to happen, and there will continue to be similar scenarios. Lusignan Prison was already overcrowded, and is now further burdened with having to accommodate inmates from the overcrowded Camp Street Prison. The situation became more untenable when high and low risk inmates were placed together under conditions akin to a camp out or picnic setting. This is bound to cause conflict and bring to the fore the inadequacies of the security system, including lighting, cameras, monitoring and intelligence gathering. The ratio of prisoners to prison officers is also a problem.

In this volatile environment there is no place for complacency, neither can the executive do it alone. The absence of proactive and carefully thought out policies which were implemented continue to result in logistical nightmares. Hopefully the welfare of the prisoners whose actions are signalling the existence of human rights and environmental crises is not lost on the administration. In many instances conditions are not better than holding animals, which even animal rights activists would rightly condemn.

GTUC cautions the opposition about its ill-advised strategy to turn a national emergency into a partisan political activity. The voracious and opportunist appetite to add fuel to the fire, seeking to take advantage of crises for which they are partly responsible must cease. The PPP/C is equally responsible for the decay in the prison system having had the opportunity for 23 years to improve it but did nothing substantial about it.  Over the years the cries of prisoners, families, society and the international community to address prison reform were ignored or given lukewarm treatment. Society remembers former Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee’s response that “prison is not a five-star hotel” when public attention was brought to the deplorable conditions at the Brickdam lock-ups.

This nation does not need another Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to admit what has been known for years and has not being attended to. In the last 16 years there were several commission reports and discussions on the prison system. Notable ones are:- Guyana Prisons Ten Year Strategic Development Plan (2001-2011), British Prison Reform (2001), Justice Cecil Kennard CoI (2002 jailbreak), Disciplined Forces Commission Report (2004), Lloyd Nickram Study (2009), and Justice James Patterson CoI (2016 fire).

Sitting on the 2004 commission was Mr David Granger who is now President and Commander- in-Chief.  It is not lost on GTUC that recommendations in the 2016 CoI which could have easily been implemented were only acted on after the 9th July unrest. The other reports were done during the Bharrat Jagdeo presidency. Recommendations from the stated reports must now be used in determining the future of the prison system.

GTUC rejects the idea of privatising the prison system. Privatisation which started in the United States in the 1980s has now been condemned by that society and is accompanied by efforts at eliminating it. The private sector is profit driven and providing this service is contingent on it being lucrative. Reports out of the US and Britain highlight evidence of massive corruption, abuse of prisoners, and collusion by judges to guarantee a supply of inmates. Instead of government funding private prisons, which is what privatisation means, it must use the money to engage in meaningful prison reform, modernising laws, including sentencing, and establishing an effective rehabilitative programme.

The present situation is overwhelming the prison officers, stretching their limited resources to the brink. Over the years they have been treated like watchmen, deprived of the requisite skills, staffing complement and tools to competently deliver as required in a modern prison system. While the crises at Camp Street and Lusignan have seen reactionary management by the Joint Services, they nonetheless ought to be commended. Their performance, based on the available resources, has helped to contain the level of anxiety in the society and has brought about some level of reassurance.

Yours faithfully,

Lincoln Lewis

Guyana Trades Union Congress

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