Defective detention facilities

When Paul Arjune, a father of eight, appeared before a city magistrate charged with escaping from police custody his explanation was as simple as it was profound: “I escape out of frustration,” was his telling retort. And it appears that frustration was all the motivation he needed to remove himself from the defective detention facility and system of the Guyana Police Force.

The system of police custody and the detention facilities that support police custody in Guyana as a whole appear very lax, too subject to individual manipulation, with the physical facilities, including buildings and vehicles, usually not built to specifications neither for the purposes of remand, transport, temporary holding, or criminal detention. Formal imprisonment upon sentencing is handled by the Guyana Prisons with the Director of Prisons at its head.

Over the years, there have been many escapes from the custody of the Guyana Police Force by petty criminals or persons charged for crimes not considered particularly serious. The fact that these persons are usually recaptured by police within a relatively short timeframe points to the spontaneity and lack of planning and organisation surrounding the escape from custody. Like Paul Arjune, any sufficiently motivated prisoner can take advantage of the various lapses to make his escape.

On April 17 last, we reported that Adrian Walters, a 27-year-old plumber, escaped from the Prashad Nagar Police Outpost on April 11, while being held for breaking and entering and larceny. Walters’ claimed motivation for escaping was that he was in a scuffle with a police officer, and being on the receiving end of a thrashing, escaped from custody to avoid the beating. Of course, the police account of the escape was that Walters was permitted to use the washroom facilities, escorted by an officer, and escaped through a door, successfully outrunning the pursuing officer. He was recaptured days later.

The lack of effective standard operating procedures, and/or non-compliance with the SOPs if they exist, mean that prisoners are basically self-managing their own detention to some degree. The minute the psychological condition of the prisoner becomes such that flight becomes a high priority on his scale of needs, then the effectiveness of custody is given a harsh test and the prisoner usually escapes.

Since the beginning of the year there have already been multiple escapes of arrested persons from the custodial detention of the Guyana Police Force. In one case where an attempted-murder accused escaped from the Charity Police Station lockups, two police officers have been put before the courts on charges of negligence in facilitating the escape. This brings to light another deficiency in the GPF and this is the seeming absence of internal disciplinary measures and the use instead of the criminal justice system to punish infractions by policemen and women.

But it isn’t just the GPF which seem to have a deficient detention system, last August a full eleven residents of the juvenile correction facility, the New Opportunity Corps, escaped from the facility although they were subsequently apprehended. In 2012, there was also a mass escape when a female dormitory was set on fire amidst reports of serious discontent among the residents. Before the more dramatic prison escapes from the Georgetown Camp Street Prison, it had become par for the course for prisoners to take to the rooftop of the prison to protest matters of serious discomfort to them. Just last year too, a person being detained by the City Constabulary regarding a suspected larceny, and alleged to be mentally ill, easily escaped the lax custody of the Constabulary but was shot dead moments later, tragically in full view of his mother. With a less porous detention system and physical facilities a loss of life might have been avoided.

It is therefore obvious from the few references made thus far (and there are many more examples that can be given) that we have a very deficient detention system in Guyana. The GPF does not have vehicles specially made to transport prisoners, and continues to use regular civilian pick-up trucks for much of their work, whether it is transporting officers or prisoners. The detention facilities at the courts have not been upgraded with their specific purpose in mind and utilising the suggested architectural designs for holding facilities and jails in this the twenty first century.

Outside of the possible culpability of police and prison officers whether deliberately or just by dereliction of duty, there are real defects that need to be addressed in order to stop the recurring dash to temporary freedom that some persons in custody are driven to undertake from time to time, quite likely, merely because of some psychological stress being endured at that moment.

These defects relate to recognising the rights of prison inmates and other persons detained by the state, including juveniles and persons with medical conditions. The physical and mental wellbeing of persons in custody if properly maintained, usually results in easier to manage persons who are willing to comply with instructions.

These defects also include the need for well written and implemented Standard Operating Procedures for persons in the custody of the state entity – whether it is the GPF, the City Constabulary, juvenile detention centres, or the Guyana prison.

But implementing SOPs without the right tools of the trade may still lead to breaches, so the government must also consider upgrading the physical detention facilities including mobile units for transporting persons in custody, the promised prison boat notwithstanding.

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