Vicious circles and statistics

The Guyana Prison Service Inmates Survey, conducted as part of the Citizen Security Strengthening Programme, has confirmed that a number of prisoners have grown up surrounded by violence. The study, a collaboration with the University of Guyana, the Centre for Latin American Studies on Crime and Violence, the National University of Tres de Febrero of Argentina and the Inter-American Development Bank, found that one in four inmates had witnessed domestic violence, four in ten had witnessed alcoholism, one in five had been gang members themselves or had been close to gangs and four in ten had relatives who had gone to prison.

The study, which looked at other aspects of inmates’ lives, including arrests, legal proceedings, sentencing and recidivism, reportedly involved one third of the male and half of the female prison population. When its final report was handed over to the government on Monday, Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan, among other things, called on, “communities and civil society groups to work alongside government in correcting many of the society’s ills that eventually criminalise our young people.”

This is naturally the kind of plea that one would expect to come from a caring government official, particularly one who has oversight of the prison system. But not in this case. Given the circumstances, Minister Ramjattan’s statement seemed to channel Rip Van Winkle and frankly could be viewed as insulting to those community groups and non-government organisations (NGOs) that have been working with at-risk youth—some of them for many years—with very little or no support from this or previous governments. Furthermore, governments over the years have done little to expand the services that could target the percentage of youth likely to become involved in crime as a direct result of their environment. On the other hand, NGOs and well-meaning individuals have done much to successfully assist some children and youth to find a way out of the morass. This is society’s problem and it would be unfair to even hint that society has completely shirked its responsibility to address it.

Of course, statistics like one in four, four in ten and one in five should not be ignored, and any sort of data collection which allows for social issues to be addressed must be welcomed. Government should use whatever means can be availed to end what is obviously a vicious circle. Undoubtedly, the survey would have presented a rack of recommendations, which one hopes will be acted upon with some amount of alacrity.

However, researchers, even those with little experience, are cognisant of the fact that many studies or surveys usually have a margin of error based on their construct or methodology. It would be interesting to find out whether the sample group was extracted from all categories of the prison population: for instance, the range of ages of those sampled.

At the same time, one must also be aware that not all persons affected by violence, abuse and other ills end up in prison. Some manage to completely escape. However, there are others, maladjusted adults, not necessarily prison material, but unable to lead fully productive lives. They hide in plain sight all around us.

Then there is the other statistical group—the three in four, four in five and six in ten if one were to take the figures literally—whose members did not claim to have been affected by domestic violence, alcoholism or gang-related activities. Who are they? Victims of circumstance? Persons who were simply in the wrong place at the right time? Or are they just criminally minded?

This raises the age-old question of nature versus nurture as regards human propensity to conduct criminal activities. Is a person’s social environment—being surrounded by poverty and violence or being abused, for example—the main reason why he or she might have criminal tendencies? Or is a criminal mindset an inherent part of a person’s genes/biological pool—abnormal brain activity which results in antisocial behaviour—that he or she is unable to deviate from? Social scientists have poured decades of research into answering this and there are strong arguments for each side, backed by facts and figures, some flawed of course. There is also the school of thought that excursions into criminality involve a mix of both nature and nurture.

The point is that one should not allow what is obvious to be obscured by political, ideological or other smokescreens. Violence, substance abuse and other social ills exist all around us as do the means to address them in an impactful way. The will of successive governments to prioritise these issues is what has been and continues to be, sadly lacking.

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