Clueless management of prisons

There is a single word that comes to mind when one considers the administration of our prison system – a system which benefits from the services of a Minister of Public Security, a Board of Management, and a Director of Prisons. Most would agree that the management of our prisons demonstrates a high level of “cluelessness.”

The state of the country’s prisons has deteriorated continuously over many years, the tipping point of which must be the infamous jailbreak of 2002. However, since this most dramatic escapade and deadly and traumatic episodes that followed, there has been little done, outside of political posturing by successive administrations, to address the inadequacies in the prison system. In recent years the focus has been entirely on the prison facilities in the city of Georgetown and despite skyrocketing death tolls of prisoners and wardens, unheard of in our history, the malaise of the administrators of the prison system and the government responsible for it continues unchecked.

At the highest rung of the ladder, the Minister of Public Security has seemingly “thrown up his hands” on the issue, to borrow a phrase, and we get this distinct impression from the Minister’s own utterances to the press, and therefore to the public. In July 2018 when a raid of the prisoners turned up a number of knives and other improvised weapons and a cannabis plant, the Minister’s unscripted response to questioning from reporters was revealing, “…You get angry at what’s happening, you feel a sense of despair, but really it just goes to show the quality of some of our prison officers that allow that to happen.”

Indeed “a sense of despair” is what many right-thinking citizens must feel at the manner in which citizen security is being handled by those who should be shouldering that responsibility. After the multiple fires that eventually resulted in the razing of the Camp Street facility, a reasonable person might expect that fire prevention methods are being employed in all the prisons, and that prison officers would have been given training, perhaps by the Guyana Fire Service in the use of fire extinguishers and other fire prevention and control mechanisms. Fast forward to the recent escape from the Lusignan Prison by three inmates, one incarcerated on a capital offence charge of murder, and the subsequent unrest that followed with fires being lit by inmates, and we are forced to pinch ourselves to be sure that we are not in some perilous dream world where nothing makes sense. The Private Sector Commission in a letter to the Minister made specific reference to the issue of fire prevention, saying, with a cold dose of double entendre, “Another burning issue is the lack of fire prevention systems in the prisons, most of which are constructed of wood. The Private Sector Commission is concerned that, after two devastating prison fires, resulting in loss of lives and the escape of dangerous criminals, enough is not being done to prevent further fires.”

Despite all the advice forthcoming from stakeholder bodies and being a beneficiary of several white paper studies and commissions of inquiry, the administrators of our prisons and the Government of Guyana have not risen to the task one iota. Outside of fanciful thinking like talking about a prison boat, and doing very basic construction works that do not address the structural design flaws in the current buildings and structures housing the nation’s prisoners, nothing is being done on a fundamental level to address the weaknesses in the system.

Critical in the failure of the security surrounding the prisons are the complicity and/or ineffectiveness of the prison guards and police guards. Acting Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels, confessed that the guards had no reason for being unaware of the escape and were placed under “close arrest,” and he had the expectation that the police guards would face a similar fate. Whether there will be any useful purpose served by the “close arrest” remains to be seen, assuming we will ever hear about this aspect of the matter again.

The Lusignan prison facility itself is a kind of structure one might expect to have functioned as a Prisoner of War camp during the Vietnam War, but without the tight security. The Lusignan prison is an open-air camp holding over 500 inmates and the arrangement can’t be good for the health and basic wellbeing of either the inmates or the guards tasked with keeping the facility secure. If the prison administrators cannot respect the basic human rights of their employees and the wards of the state which are the inmates, then these administrators have already eschewed their most basic responsibility.

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a list of 11 “Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners” that if properly understood and implemented by the prison authorities here, will immediately necessitate dramatic improvements in physical facilities and systems, and the proper treatment of the wardens themselves. From a psychological standpoint, our own humanity is determined by the treatment we mete out to those in our care, whether it is our tender care or a stricter custodial control. At the end of the day, we are going to unleash these same people on our society in view of the fact that the vast majority are not on a life sentence. The seeming non-stop erosion of morals and behaviour in our society has a lot to do with the type of police and prison systems that we have.

Reversing this on-going slide into oblivion requires change at the very fundamental level of respect for the humanity of both the prisoners and their wardens who we depend on to be the human wall between society and those incarcerated. The next step is to build stronger, safer facilities suited to the purpose for which they are intended.

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