The Fresh Start initiative

As discussions continue for the Government’s overall reform and modernisation programme for the Guyana Prison Service, there has been growing acknowledgment of the importance of rehabilitation and social reintegration programmes for persons leaving the prison system.
Home Affairs Minister Robeson Benn recently alluded to this growing recognition when he said during his budget presentation: “We’re talking about a release programme called ‘Fresh Start’ to enable them (female prisoners) to move to gainful employ, re-engage and rehabilitation with the society and with their families. We will do these things.”
This is in reference to the reform of the prison service initiative, which targets the transformation of the prison service from a penal to a correctional service, promotes an environment where custodial safety is assured, and inmates are rehabilitated and successfully reintegrated into society.
According to the Minister, the focus will also be placed on establishing special programmes geared towards reintegrating these women into society.
The Doha Declaration, adopted in 2015 at the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, highlights the crucial importance of the rehabilitation of prisoners for achieving sustainable development.
It is with this declaration in mind, that it is laudable that Guyana is taking steps towards reintegration.
An important-yet-alarming comment by the Home Affairs Minister during his presentation was the fact that there has been a tremendous increase in the entire prison population across the country. According to him, in recent years, the prison population has grown by some 14 per cent, that is, over 2100 new inmates in the system. Crucially, however, the underlying factors that led to this increase must be determined. That aside, it is important to note that female offenders have specific social reintegration needs that differ from male offenders.
Like male offenders but to a greater extent, they face heavy psychological consequences in addition to stigmatisation.
A study conducted in South Africa for the reintegration of women into society after incarceration found that:
1) Trauma victimisation and abuse: female offenders are generally more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse
2) Mental health: Depression, anxiety, and self-harm are more prevalent among female offenders than male
3) Parental stress: female offenders who are also mothers have additional sources of stress and anxiety. Maternal demands may add to reoffending if they are accompanied by substance abuse, poverty, and poor social support
Here in Guyana, poverty and poor social support are of utmost importance in helping women prisoners reintegrate. Already and commendably so, there are numerous skills training programmes offered in our prison system to help lift inmates from poverty once released.

However, in developing this new initiative “Fresh Start”, it is hoped that the authors should examine the impact and quality of existing programmes and if these will have significant economic benefits for women once released from prison. This will allow authorities to determine what impact the current programmes are having and how to formulate appropriate strategies for rehabilitation and reintegration.
According to the Minister in 2022, some 1400 inmates were trained in areas such as block-making, basic agriculture, and culinary arts among others, at a cost of $88.9 million and it is anticipated that in 2023, a further sum of $100 million will be expended towards the training of 1500 inmates, which will support their rehabilitation and social transformation in preparation for their exit from the prison system.
There is no doubt that the investments as outlined by the Minister are significant and it is for this reason that a proper examination must be done of the current programmes to determine the effectiveness or any gaps or deficiencies.
Rehabilitation and reintegration programmes must contribute in a significant manner to the lives of these women so that they can lead them to a crime-free life.