Government will be launching a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the fire that razed the Camp Street Prison on Sunday last; a little over a year after another one was conducted into a deadly blaze at that very facility.
This was made known in the wake of a meeting held between a Government team composed of Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson, Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels, Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud and members of the political Opposition.
Government has been briefing stakeholders and members of civil society on it efforts to relocate prisoners, secure existing infrastructure and recapture the prisoners who used Sunday’s blaze to escape under the cover of confusion.
During Friday’s meeting with the Opposition team comprising of former Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee and parliamentarians Juan Edghill, Harry Gill and Bheri Ramsarran, Minister Ramjattan announced that a CoI would be launched into the tragedy.
Last year March, a fire raged through the Camp Street Prison, claiming the lives of 17 prisoners. Afterwards, a Commission of Inquiry which cost the Treasury some $13 million was ordered by President David Granger, despite criticisms at the time that it would just regurgitate facts already known about Guyana’s prison and judicial system.
According to the report compiled by the Commissioners, the combination of overcrowding, uncomfortable and unhygienic confinement are all ideal conditions for epidemics, for gangs to prosper and to propagate discontent.
Moreover, the CoI found that reducing numbers in prison to manageable levels is the single most important priority for establishing safe, humane and purposeful prisons.
It was further noted that repeat offenders have increased by over 100 per cent, “indicating not only a waste of taxpayer dollars but also the need for a more comprehensive and structured partnership within the wider justice system.”
In order to effect a reduction in the prison population, the report had been specific in explaining what needed to be done. For one, it had recommended that Government move to abolish mandatory minimum sentences and decriminalise possession of minimum amounts of marijuana for personal use.
In addition, there were recommendations for establishing and expanding alternatives to incarceration for those charged with low-level drug offences; as well as ensuring proportionality in sentencing.
The report had noted the importance of distinguishing between drug trafficking and other types of crime, low-, medium- and high-level drug offences, rank or position of the accused in drug-trafficking networks, and violent and non-violent offences.
In addition, there were recommendations for avoiding remand in the case of low-level, non-violent offenders; for the judiciary to employ non-custodial sentences in all cases of possession – such as treatment, educational opportunities or community service – that are available to those involved in other types of offences.
The CoI report also recommended that law enforcement efforts be re-oriented to target high-level drug-trafficking networks instead of low-level drug traffickers such as consumers, small-scale farmers, low-level dealers and mules.
There had also been recommendations for the Government to undertake periodically comprehensive prison censuses to upgrade and expand criminal justice data systems and ensure timely access to criminal justice information for policymakers and the public.
But despite the emphasis in the CoI report on reducing numbers, Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels himself confirmed that at the time of the fire on Sunday last, over 1000 prisoners were being housed at the prison, with a contingent out on labour duty. The Camp Street Prison was originally built to house nearly half that number.
When asked at a press conference about the progress made in implementing the recommendations from last year, the Director has said that money just was not there to implement the major recommendations. According to Samuels at a press conference, some were a “work in progress.”
“As it relates to some of the recommendations made, we have gone on a recruitment drive where our entry level is filled in terms of recruiting persons to assist in manning the prison,” Samuels said. “There are some 40-odd recommendations that came out of the last CoI and a lot of the major recommendations that came out require capital investment which we are currently working on.”
Government has also faced accusations that it ignored recommendations made in other CoIs, such as the CoI into the state of the Guyana Sugar Corporation. While one of the recommendations from that CoI was that no estates be closed, Government has already stated it will forge ahead with closing all estates except Blairmont, Uitvlugt and Albion.
It has also launched a plethora of CoIs into several aspects of Government, including education, public service, the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit and abandoned planes found in the interior. Most recently, Government has announced a CoI into an alleged assassination plot against the President.