Prison suicides

In Guyana there is neither much thought nor action given towards the idea of the human rights of prisoners – even those on remand who have not yet been given due process through the judicial system. To be charged for a crime is usually synonymous with a guilty verdict in the eyes of the public, and this reality does not appear to be affected by the public’s own generally negative assessment of the work of the Guyana Police Force. Add to this the usually interminable wait for a trial while on remand, and we get a picture of disregard and shunning of those who fall foul of the legal system even to the point of denying them certain basic human rights.

Against this bleak backdrop of the manner of incarceration of many in Guyana and around the world comes the issue of prisoner suicide. From time to time, prisoners, who are effectively wards of the state, take their own lives in an environment that is expected to specifically impede such efforts by the inmates. Despite this expectation, from time to time, prisoners all over the world manage to take their own lives, and specialists who study the details in search of the “why” a prisoner decides to take his own life have come up with prison overcrowding (of inmates) and understaffing (of warders) as a cause of resulting neglect of inmates with mental health issues.

In the world’s professed foremost democracy, the United States of America, prisoner deaths by suicide is the second leading cause of deaths in prisons. In Guyana, a country devoid of any systematic approach to gathering data and compiling information, it is only possible to make deductive conclusions using logic and whatever information is known, including anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, there seems to be a casual approach to the issue of suicides occurring of persons in custody of state agencies, with “investigations” leading nowhere and the status quo remaining unchanged regardless.

When a 61-year-old man, accused of raping a 12-year-old child, was discovered hanging by his shirt from a grilled window in the Leonora Police Station lockups just a few days after being arrested and taken into custody, the police promised an investigation into the matter. What is of note here is that the cell was populated by four other prisoners, none of whom apparently raised an alarm as the apparent suicide was being carried out. This calls into question the methods of control and monitoring of those in custody employed by their custodians.

Back in April of 2018, a 53-year-old man at Mahdia, potentially facing an 18-month sentence for simple larceny while being unable to pay an alternative $40,000 fine, allegedly committed suicide by hanging while in police custody. Stabroek News reported that the Police Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) “is investigating purported breaches of the Standard Operating Procedures regarding custody of prisoners.” It might prove useful and very instructive to march into the Mahdia Police Station and request a copy of these “Standard Operating Procedures” in order to confirm their existence or sufficiency, or indeed to enquire how many policemen and policewomen might have ever read them.

Another example of an alleged prisoner suicide occurred in January, 2015 where a much younger man, just 22 years of age was found hanging by his shirt in the East Ruimveldt Police outpost while being in Police custody on a charge of simple larceny. In this case a prisoner alerted officers after he heard gasping noises, and the young man was found and pronounced dead on arrival at the Georgetown Public Hospital. There were no reports as to whether attempts to revive him were made, or indeed even if anyone at the outpost was trained in this regard which we concede is very unlikely. Like the example of the 61-year-old man, this particular prisoner had only been arrested days before he allegedly took his own life.

In February, 2018, in keeping with the recommendations of British security adviser Lt. Col. (ret’d) Russel Combe, ten prison officers and two policemen participated in training to “identify and handle vulnerable prisoners, particularly those who were unstable,” as we reported.  Several months after we are still not seeing any expressed intention of the state agencies concerned with the incarceration of persons as part of the due process of administering justice, in assessing and monitoring the mental state of persons who are taken into custody, but who may have pre-existing conditions, or who might be totally unprepared for the mental strain that the deprivation of freedom can have on some persons. Prisons may be overcrowded, but ironically, they are also a place of intense loneliness brought about by the separation from family and friends and indeed, all things familiar that even a brief period of incarceration can bring.

The attitude that says that everyone in the prison system is guilty and therefore receives their “just desserts” is not in keeping with the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra preached by the justice system, neither is it in sync with the application of basic human rights in a civilized society.

Suicide as a mental health problem is endemic to Guyana and cannot be eradicated unless it is addressed at all of its levels and occurrences. Prisoner suicides and indeed all deaths of persons in custody of the state need to be carefully investigated and statistical information carefully recorded and disseminated for public consumption.

We must always bear in mind that, with the dearth of statistical information, the situation might be actually worse than it appears.

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