Prison destruction – a tragedy waiting to happen

Dear Editor,

On July 9, 2017 we experienced the worst jail break and destruction of the jail in our history. The whole prison on Camp Street was destroyed by arson. The Officers Club, across the street from the prison, was also razed to the ground. Many very dangerous criminals escaped.

It was not just the worst such incident in Guyana, but one of the worst in the English-speaking Caribbean.

If we look at the behaviour of the APNU regime since it took power in May 2015, then we can see that that was an in incident waiting to happen. This regime, from its very inception, gave the impression of being soft on crimes and criminals. Recall that the Granger Administration, almost as soon as its term commenced, began pardoning criminals, releasing many back into the society. Despite many criticism and caution by knowledgeable persons, the process continued. There is no evidence that those released went through any serious rehabilitation programmes.

Some of the crimes that this regime speaks about as not being serious include stealing of cell phones. Yet we know that Sheema Mangar from the East Coast of Demerara was murdered for her phone, and that crime remains unsolved. The parents of Ms Mangar continue to grieve the loss of their precious daughter because of a cell phone theft.

Criminals, sensing this sympathy of the regime, began to push for more concessions. More skirmishes began to take place in the Camp Street Prison. Police and prison officers began to take less forceful positions in relation to criminals. No doubt taking heed of the attitude of the regime to crime and the criminals, many appear to believe that they could get into trouble if they took a hard stance against the criminals.

On March 3, 2016, we had a major riot in the Camp Street Prison. Many persons, unfortunately, lost their lives.  There was a fire set by some of the prisoners, and it killed their fellow inmates.  Officers were injured.

One March 4, 2016, two very senior ministers of the Government, Joseph

Harmon and Khemraj Ramjattan, went to the prison to meet with the inmates. Not a word in solidarity with the prison officers, whose work is so important in keeping our society safe.

Indeed, former Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee, had cautioned the Government to be careful with their actions, lest it be interpreted by the prisoners that the Government was tolerant of their behavior, and this embolden them into taking more such actions.

That is what seems to have happened.

The criticism of the police being too harsh appears to have given the criminals a sense of security.  The police and prison officers have been cowed.

This is what led to the tragic events of July 9, 2017. The criminals destroyed the prison totally, murdered an officer, and injured many others. Billions of dollars in property have been lost. More pressure is being put on our already heavily burdened taxpayers.

The regime is blaming the overcrowding of the prisons for the incident. We know that the prisons have been overcrowded.

It is also true that this is not a recent phenomenon. The overcrowding started a long time ago. This has been a problem since the first PNC government (1964-92). It never led to this type of riots and destruction. Clearly, therefore, this is not the main reason.

If the regime felt that overcrowding was the main issue, then why did they put a halt on the reform programme that the PPP/Civic was implementing?

Lusignan was being transformed into a prison to rehabilitate prisoners before releasing them. A great deal of capital works was going on there, new buildings, fencing of the place, and preparation for facilities to educate and reform the prisoners. All this was taking place. It is these facilities that have now come in handy to house those prisoners who have been displaced by the arson from the Camp Street Prison.

This programme was halted by this APNU regime.

In responding to one of the queries from one of the journalist on the night of July 9, 2017, Minister Ramjattan blamed the sugar workers for halting the building of new facilities.  He said the money had to be given to sugar.

This is the worst kind of distortion and slander heaped on sugar workers, who are themselves victims of this uncaring regime.

This Government could find money to waste on projects like the Durban Park Stadium; they could spend fourteen million ($14M)  a month on a bottom house to store condoms and lubricants; they could spend millions of tax-payers’ money on procuring drugs, given to what appears to be a favoured contractor, while avoiding the bidding process and the National Tender Board. They have no qualms about increasing ministers’s salaries by fifty percent, to increase the number of ministers and advisors; they can find money to pay huge amounts to ministers for house allowances and rents.

They can spend money to buy a US$124,000 vehicle for the Prime Minister to ride, in and to charter planes to travel abroad. At the same time giving themselves almost unlimited travelling allowances.

They can find money to set-up numerous Commissions of Inquiry, which recommendations are promptly ignored, as in the case of sugar.

Yet they abandoned the many aspects of the security reform measures started by the PPP/C Administration, even though those were designed to keep our people safe.

This regime has failed the Guyanese people in every sector. The recent tragic events in our prisons are just another example. Unfortunately, they are a tragic and expensive example that stands out as a monument to the APNU regime’s incompetence.

The Government must re-examine their attitude to crimes and criminals, so that a July 9, 2017 should not occur again.

Donald Ramotar

Former President