When inmates of the New Amsterdam penitentiary posted images on Facebook showing themselves imbibing hard liquor, energy drinks, and smoking what appeared to be marijuana cigarettes, much as if they were having a celebratory drink at a neighbourhood bar on the corner, the obvious culpability of prison officers in the regular breaches occurring in the prison system were dramatically exposed to the glare of public scrutiny. The pictures turned up on the Facebook page of an alleged murderer.
In a recent response to the incident which occurred nearly three weeks ago and is said to be still under investigation by the prison authorities, Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramrattan blamed the occurrence as being facilitated by “rogue elements in our prison system,” and said further “Technology is expensive. I will try again this year to get the scanner for all these prisons. We understand too that we had a scanner for some place and the people just bypass the scanner; so we really have to professionalise our prison warders.”
In the statement quoted above, the Minister both advocated a solution to the issue of contraband in the prisons and then proceeded to contradict himself by saying that a previous application of the same solution did not work. If the Minister is managing the public’s expectations he might be reassured that it is sufficiently lower than he might be prepared to acknowledge. Indeed, the mention of the installation of scanners seem very much in the vein of a knee jerk reaction to a problem whose proportions may have grown beyond the grasp of those tasked with its solution.
The truth is that there seems to be a gap in the understanding of the fundamental role of prisons in society by those who must treat with the problems inherent in the system. The answer might be found in a study of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 2015 revised version also known as the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’ to honour the legacy of the late President of South Africa who himself was a victim of the penal system for 27 years. Rule 4 of the Nelson Mandela Rules sets forth a key philosophical construct regarding the imprisonment of criminals:
“The purposes of a sentence of imprisonment or similar measures deprivative of a person’s liberty are primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life. To this end, prison administrations and other competent authorities should offer education, vocational training and work, as well as other forms of assistance that are appropriate and available, including those of a remedial, moral, spiritual, social and health- and sports-based nature. All such programmes, activities and services should be delivered in line with the individual treatment needs of prisoners.”
If we consistently bear in mind the realisation that the thousands of persons currently in various forms of penal detention in Guyana are going to be released back into society at some point in time, except for those who may die in prison whether by execution of a sentence or other causes, then we might greater appreciate the need for an enhanced focus on rehabilitation as part of the efforts to reduce recidivism on release. Harsh prison conditions do nothing to help with rehabilitation and even petty criminals can leave the system in a hardened state even after serving relatively short sentences.
With a specific reference to the seeming ease with which contraband is allowed into the prisons, the fact is, that making contraband available to prisoners has long been a lucrative practice for those involved, and indeed this practice of smuggling contraband into prisons is not limited to Guyana as all prisons in all countries in the world are forced to manage and control this issue.
The Public Security Minister has made it quite clear that simply installing scanners is no solution to the issue of contraband entering the prisons, as unless the human monitors stick to the laid down guidelines and regulations, and are also prepared to report their colleagues found trying to bypass the prison rules to the higher authorities, and unless the higher authorities are prepared to deal condignly with those aberrant prison officers and visitors to the prison, then the scanners become just another costly piece of furniture acquired at taxpayers’ expense.
In November 2017, the Government of Guyana declared an allocation of $30.7 B to the security sector in the 2018 Budget with the Prisons set to receive $1.5 B to “address the expansion and rehabilitation of prison infrastructure” according to a Department of Public Information report. And back in January 2015 the Guyana Prison Service launched its Standing Orders under then Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee and Director of Prisons at the time, Mr Welton Trotz. According to the report in the Guyana Chronicle retired Director of Prisons Cecil Kilkenny headed a committee which produced the list of 50 Standing Orders which were to guide officers in the conduct of their duties.
Despite the existence of these Standing Orders and the obvious breaches which must occur to facilitate contraband smuggling and a range of other lapses that the prison systems has seen over the years, there has been no noticeable improvement and many might say that things continue to slide.
Minister Ramjattan’s scanners, whenever they arrive, are unlikely to result in any real positive change if the prison administration cannot get its officers to comply with its own Standing Orders, and if it is unable to complete in a timely manner, an urgent investigation in a matter that was gifted it by the news media nearly three weeks ago.