Mother’s Day at the NA Prison

In off the cuff remarks on Wednesday at State House about the third anniversary of his government in office, President Granger said  “Sometimes commentators tend to underestimate the difficulties we face in terms of our finance… international relations… crime and security but I think [a] sober analysis will see that we have made tremendous progress”.

He addressed a number of issues and asserted that the government had made major progress in suppressing piracy in Guyana’s waters. “Unfortunately the tragedy that we have seen take place in … Suriname shows that the problems of piracy have not been completely depleted,” he further said in reference to the attacks on almost two dozen fishermen at the end of last month in the waters of the neighbouring country.

The President also pointed out that the posting of photographs on social media of inmates of the New Amsterdam Prison consuming alcohol on Mother’s Day highlights the existing problems in the prison service. “These are challenges that are not of our making but we are working very hard to overcome them. We have sought the advice and assistance of our partners overseas and we are very confident that in the fullness of time we will be able to deliver to the Guyana citizens…We promised them a better life, a safer life and a more prosperous country,” he said.

It is debatable whether the government has made the type of progress on piracy that the President has asserted. The eruption of violence in Suriname waters has an organic connection to communities on this side of the border and there have been ongoing turf battles in the waters of both countries.

However, it was the President’s reference to the situation at the New Amsterdam Prison which warrants attention and which underlines the gross failures of his administration in the pivotal area of prison security.

Sometime on Mother’s Day, May 13th, a group of inmates of the New Amsterdam Prison, several of whom are facing serious charges, including murder, got together in some part of the prison and literally had a party. Not only did they have expensive liquor and chasers, they also appeared to have been smoking a prohibited substance. There was no sign of a warder in sight. Hopefully, he/she was not the person who took the photos.

Prisoners should certainly have opportunities to socialise with each other within the boundaries of prison rules as part of healthy communications and helping to cope with the stresses of imprisonment. They are also used to special meals on particular days though it is unclear whether Mother’s Day is one of these occasions.

What, however, was uploaded to Facebook was an unvarnished rumshop gathering with all the likely attendant risks: excess consumption and brawling with no sign at all of security at the prisons.  This is an exceedingly worrying development and one that make a mockery of any suggestion by the President or the Minister of Public Security that security in the prisons has improved.

First, the continued ability of prisoners to freely upload to social media via handsets is a gross breach of security particularly for prisoners charged with serious crimes and kept in an institution which has featured planned uprisings. The handset and wifi pose clear and present dangers to the security of the prisons. Prisoners in enlightened institutions should surely be able to have some access to the internet but this would have to be for educational purposes and not at the risk of undermining prison security.

Second, how the prisoners came to be in possession of liquor and other prohibited substances is unknown but this has been a long-running bane of penitentiaries here and further afield. The Ministry of Public Security in a statement after the images appeared on social media said that the   mobile device which was used by the inmate had been seized by the authorities and investigations into the matter were currently ongoing. It also cited collusion as one of the factors.

“The Ministry is extremely disappointed that alien objects and other material, inclusive of drugs and liquor, find their way into the various prisons as obviously happened here. There is no doubt collusion with prison wardens and prisoners … is causing this.

“This kind of misbehaviour by the culpable prison wardens will be dealt with very seriously after the ongoing investigations reveal who they are. The Public will be further advised on this matter after investigations conclude”, a statement from the ministry  had said.

Third, the fact that the prisoners appeared to be in charge of that section of the jail on May 13 and could do as they please signals a breakdown in law and order at the NA Prison, a development that should cause concern in the community where the prison is located and in relation to the general state of security in the country. How on earth this could have gone on for five minutes, let alone the likely much longer period is beyond imagination. The person in charge of the prison should have been immediately suspended pending further action after investigation. Nothing has been heard about this.

Fourth, the fact there was such a serious breach of discipline at the NA prison after several years of serious, deadly upheavals in the prison system means that the APNU+AFC Government has failed after three years to take control of the situation. If there was one area where APNU+AFC was thought to have superior credentials to its predecessor it was in the broad area of security. As far as the prisons go, it has shown itself to be worse.

The public doesn’t need to be reminded of the gross failures. Despite having a clear idea of the depth of the dangers lurking within the prison system, on taking office, the government failed to take comprehensive action to tackle overcrowding at Camp Street, the seething dissent at inhumane treatment of prisoners and the length of time they had been incarcerated while awaiting trial. A full-scale uprising at the Camp Street prison in 2016 led to the deaths of 17 prisoners in a fire. Even that horrific toll was not enough to bring about change. It took a second uprising in 2017 during which almost the entire Camp Street prison was burnt to the ground in a well-planed breakout which claimed the life of a prison warden. This would be followed shortly after by a series of insurrections and a mass breakout at a temporary holding facility at Lusignan where the displaced prisoners from Camp Street had to be kept. 

If after all that, and the existential threat posed to the public from the disorder in prisons, inmates at the NA Prison could again flagrantly compromise security there, then the government has failed comprehensively on this aspect of security. Heads should roll. The head of prisons and the person in charge of the New Amsterdam prison must give an immediate account of what transpired on May 13 and decisive action taken wherever necessary.

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