…says sense of fear lingering in business community
…laments slow pace of prison reforms
Last Sunday’s jailbreak and fire at the Camp Street Prison, which resulted in the death of one prison officer and at least six others being seriously injured, has given rise to the call for proper facilities to be put in place to protect prison wardens and other staffers.
The private sector has long been a major benefactor to the local law enforcement bodies, lending support whenever needed, or just out of their goodwill. As such, when a team of State officials sat down on Friday to brief members of the Private Sector Commission about last Sunday’s events and ongoing efforts to contain the situation, concerns were raised about the general working conditions of prison officers.
In addition to 33-year-old Prison Officer Odinga Wickham losing his life to several gunshot wounds to the chest, some of his colleagues were seriously injured from chop, stab, and gunshot wounds inflicted on them during the ordeal.
And those prison wardens who managed to escape physical injury were left traumatised by having witnessed their colleagues and partners being injured. In fact, some of the female officers had been held hostage by the raging inmates, but were freed unharmed.
Many of the officers had, for some time now, complained of being threatened by the inmates, and had even complained to high authorities; but nothing was ever done for their safety. In fact, asked about this at a recent press conference, prison authorities told media operatives that this was treated as rumour.
Nevertheless, at Friday’s briefing, PSC Security Liaison, Gerry Gouveia, highlighted a few worrying issues that were brought to the fore following the incident at the Georgetown Prisons, one of which are the conditions under which the ranks are being made to work, given the risks they face.
Gouveia, who also sat on the Guyana Prisons Service’s Sentence Management Board for some eight years, pointed out that prison officers put their lives on the line every day, and are in a ‘war zone’ where anything can happen in an instant, just like the danger police officers face.
“But prison officers are actually on the bottom of the pecking order in our Joint Services; so the authorities need to look at the conditions they work in (and) their salaries. You can’t have 12 prison officers manning a prison with over a thousand inmates; it’s actually ludicrous… They are working long hours, they are (experiencing) fatigue, and they (cannot help becoming) complacent; so I believe the actual management and welfare and support system for prison officers and the work they do needs to be greatly enhanced,” Gouveia told this newspaper following Friday’s briefing session.
He said that if Government fails to improve the working conditions of these officers, then not only Sunday’s, but last March’s incidents are bound to be repeated. He added, too, that a lot of resources are thrown into the system, but only after there are major incidents.
The businessman posited that if those same resources are injected into bettering the working life for prison officers, then such incidents can be prevented.
During Friday’s session, the authorities briefed the audience on the events of Sunday evening, and efforts that are being undertaken to contain the situation. They also fielded questions from the audience, which included representatives from the PSC, the various Chambers of Commerce across the country, the Manufacturing Associations, as well as civil society, among others.
Sense of fear
Chairman of the PSC, Eddie Boyer, commended the security authorities for their response to Sunday’s incidents. He pointed out that such a briefing was necessary, since a sense of fear has been lingering within the business community and the public in general.
According to the Private Sector Head, while business has generally been slow, last Sunday’s events have impacted business activities. He lamented the sloth in enforcing prison reforms and recommendations emanating from the Prison CoI that was done last year.
“A lot of these things were not taken on board, so this was a situation waiting to happen,” he declared.
Boyer outlined that it is imperative for Government to be providing regular updates on the situation as it unfolds, because the nation at large is keen and interested in knowing what is going on.
“We want to be updated on all that’s happening; this is a national issue,” Boyer said, adding that Government officials have committed to providing daily updates.
President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), Deodat Indar, related that the private sector has offered to help Government disseminate authentic information to the public. He explained that a lot of incorrect details have been circulating in regard to Sunday’s jailbreak, causing people to be riled up in fear.
He said the PSC can help, and be a good surrogate to make sure that Government’s information is disseminated efficiently, and not only through the DPI’s “slothish fashion.”
“It can come through the Private Sector Commission and its affiliates, to help with calming fear among the businesses and general public… We will assist them in whatever way we can, but we can only do so if we receive credible information,” Indar stated.