Safely relocating just over 1000 prisoners during the raging inferno that reduced the central prison on Camp Street, in Georgetown, to cinder borders on the miraculous. While a final accounting for all prisoners awaits a search of the cooling compound, the Prison Service staff and the Joint Services who worked with them along with inmates, deserve the highest commendation. This commendation is additionally merited, in light of the provocation of the prison officers club being set alight allegedly by some inmates while being held there as a temporary measure. Statements from President David Granger and Public Security e Minister Khemraj Ramjattan indicate an intention that these levels of humanitarian concern will carry over to the make-shift accommodation in Lusignan, on the East Coast of Demerara, especially given the current heavy rains.
Judging from their performance last night, lessons have been learnt by the Guyana Prison Service (GPS) and the Joint Services from last year’s fire in which 17 prisoners perished.
The spotlight needs to move fairly quickly to an assessment of other aspects of this tragedy. Last year’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) Report, asked three questions: what happened? What happened that should not have happened, and what did not happen that ought to have happened.
The first section dealt with the facts: who did what and to whom and what were the consequences. The second part encompassed Standing Orders, their adequacy and other aspects of the general administration of the prison. The third part: ‘What did not happen that ought to have happened’ looked at the role of supporting agencies – the most vital of which is the Judiciary, which controls how many prisoners are sent to Camp Street prison.
The prison population as of yesterday (Sunday), according to Prison Director (ag) Gladwin Samuels stood at 1018 in a prison built originally to accommodate 300-400 inmates. The prison has to take all who are sent by the courts. The central complaint leading to last year’s fire came from remand prisoners who spend long periods awaiting trial. The Minister of Public Security reported last night that this figure still constitutes half of all inmates – some 500 men who are still to be convicted or released as innocent.
The CoI Report alluded to the following causes of overcrowding which one way or another fall within the purview of the administration of justice. They include refusal of bail in bailable cases, inability to pay bail, a dearth of Magistrates, slowness of the High Court, lack of alternative sentences and absence of a sentencing policy leading to bizarre discrepancies in sentences.
Following a temporary introduction of night courts and appeals to Magistrates to use their common sense and be even-handed in bail matters, over-crowding has assumed a lower profile. An initiative to develop alternative penalties has reportedly been developed but its effects are not yet evident in the courts.
Equally disturbing is the lack of sustained interest from the legal profession in bringing pressure to keep prison reform front and centre of public concern. Similarly, the other key institution nominally responsible for the welfare and safety of prisoners, namely the Parole Board, has powers to ensure that time spent productively while in prison will result in positive and timely recommendations for parole. It is the safety valve all prisons require to incentivise good behaviour. More attention to the role of the Guyana Parole Board is needed to ensure public accountability and greater vitality.
By contrast, the GPS has shown imagination and leadership on over-crowding by rewarding prisoners who work without compensation in the prisons. Acting Prison Director Samuels is reported as stating that “It’s a form of reward for daily contribution to the prisons. They work in the tailor shops, farms, kitchens, clean the yards, transport self-support meals. At the end of the month, we calculate the value of that labour. So, as a form of compensation, they receive Special Remission, which is reduced time on their sentences. Last year a total of 8743 days were taken off from the sentences. In the past, it was seven to 28 days, but this time we started from 14 to 21, to 28 days. Many of them are well behaved and go beyond the call of duty of what is required. Some 486 prisoners have benefited from this scheme to date.”
Guyana Human Rights