Camp Street was a tragedy waiting to happen

There are approximately 2,000 prisoners in the five facilities in Georgetown, New Amsterdam, Mazaruni, Lusignan and Timehri. Of these 35 per cent are on remand awaiting trial. The Georgetown Prison at Camp Street was designed to accommodate 600 prisoners but held in the vicinity 1,000. Violent incidents or escapes have occurred in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Mazaruni in the past. There was always a great fear among those responsible for security that Camp Street could explode at any time. The problem of overcrowding was well known.

The recent studies and reports are as follows:

In 2001 a comprehensive report by a British team on prison reform was made. It found overcrowding, violations of human rights, inadequate alternatives to incarceration, poor conditions for prisoners and staff and minimal scope for rehabilitation.

In 2001 the Guyana Prison Service produced a ten-year Strategic Development Plan for 2001-2011 after reports, workshops, retreats and visits.

In 2002 the Carter Center presented a report calling for a review of the criminal justice system including the system of imprisonment.

Also in 2002 the Kennard Commission of Inquiry into the February 2002 jailbreak concluded that it would not have occurred if the prisoners had been transferred to Mazaruni.

In 2004 the Report of the Disciplined Services Commission chaired by Justice Ian Chang made 28 recommendations for improvements to the prisons: increased staff, increasing the capacity of Mazaruni to deal with dangerous prisoners and others.

In 2009 a 68-page report prepared by a team led by Lloyd Nickram, a Management Specialist in the Public Service Ministry, made much the same recommendations as the previous reports and identified the main cause of chronic overcrowding as the large number of remands and imprisonment for petty crimes. (See SN Feb 25, 2010).

The Georgetown Prison Visiting Committee reports every year to the Minister repeating the same litany of overcrowding and other problems.

The Patterson Commission after the fire last year in which 17 prisoners died has made recommendations. Only some have been implemented.

Having regard to all of the studies and reports outlined above, any further investigation into prison conditions will be a useless exercise. The problems have already been clearly and repeatedly identified. The failure of successive governments to implement the recommendations, principally to expand accommodation, has been responsible for the ongoing tragedies.

The short-term tasks that could have brought immediate relief were the substantial reduction of prisoners by modern, non-custodial, sentencing laws and policies for minor offences, a more creative policy with regard to bail and an annual review by the Director of Public Prosecutions of every case of a prisoner awaiting trial for more than two years. None of this was ever done.

The government did not appoint a permanent, multi-agency, task force on prison reform to drive the process of reform without which it has been languishing and will continue to languish in bureaucratic inertia. The most important factor, however, is political will and governmental parsimony. At the best of times the prison and the judiciary are the two stepsisters who are starved when funds become scarce. They do not bring in votes at election time so they receive no political priority.

The judiciary could have taken a bold stand. A Board of Visiting Justices, comprising members of the judiciary, is required to be appointed by the minister under section 47 of the Prison Act. All judges and magistrates are ex-officio visiting justices for each of the prisons of Guyana. Visiting justices have a right to inquire into the food, diet, clothing, treatment and conduct of prisoners. Abuses and irregularities are required to be investigated. It is wrong for the magistracy and judiciary to violate the human rights of citizens by sending them into inhuman conditions in prisons, and they should so declare. If this happens, the rapid pace of reform would surprise everyone.

Guyana’s judiciary must be conscious of the fact, or made conscious of it, that the Canadian Supreme Court in the case of Morin v Her Majesty the Queen and the Attorney General in 1992 set eight months as the time limit for the trial of a person who is incarcerated, beyond which his/her constitutional right to a trial within reasonable time is being violated. Are the constitutional rights of Guyanese prisoners less valuable than those of Canadian prisoners?

I do not know if anyone recognizes what is written above. A modified and abridged version was published on March 13, 2016, after the death of 17 prisoners in a fire at the Georgetown Prison. Since the recent fire there have been more escapes and regular discoveries of cell phones, drugs and weapons in prisons. One prisoner was killed on Friday at Timehri attempting to escape. A Cevon’s driver was imprisoned last week for smuggling drugs to prisoners.

The prison problems are not going to subside until the main problem, overcrowding, is first addressed. Another tragedy is right around the corner unless a new prison is built or an existing facility is substantially expanded to take care of the excess prison population. Neither the PPP/C governments nor the APNU+AFC government has acknowledged or seriously addressed this reality.

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