We need a new prison

Stabroek News
July 23, 2001

Dear Editor,

Sixteen prisoners climbed on the roof of the Georgetown prison on Thursday, July 12, 2001 to protest general conditions in the prison. From the roof of the prison, they complained about bad food, lack of proper medical attention, lack of exercise, beatings, years in prison on remand and overcrowding, among other things.

This prison, which was built over one hundred years ago to accommodate 350 prisoners, was in the week ending Saturday 8.7.2001, holding 815 inmates.

I am an ex-prison officer. When I joined the Prison Service in 1945, under Superintendent S G Baker, an Englishman, there were three prisons in the country: Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam prisons. The population in the Georgetown prison fluctuated between three and four hundred prisoners. In 1958, the then British Director of Prisons, Ronald Aitken, advised the Guyana Government at the time to build a new prison and to remove the Camp Street prison from its present site. His recommendations were accepted and later abandoned as building a prison at that time was not on the country's list of priorities. Again in 1966, another British adviser and consultant, Mr Colin Price, officially advised our Government that it would be in Guyana's best interest to build a new prison to reduce the overcrowding as the six prisons in the country, Georgetown, Mazaruni, New Amsterdam, Timehri, Lusignan and Sibley Hall were all bursting at their seams. His advice was also disregarded.

At the present time, with the high increase in the prison population, there is urgent need for a new prison. The emphasis the world over is not on large prisons, but on smaller and more manageable establishments. The high cost of building a prison cannot be overlooked, yet the time has come for a new prison to be built without further delay. The money for this project must be found from somewhere and the various authorities must stop passing the buck.

The whole criminal justice system in Guyana has contributed to this intolerable state of affairs. Over 400 of the 815 prisoners in the Camp Street prison are unconvicted prisoners and appellants. It can be clearly seen that the problems the prisons are going through are due to inaction in the courts. With the serious shortage of staff at the prisons, the situation would be better managed if the cases of prisoners on remand were dealt with and disposed of expeditiously.

We have to bear in mind that the 450 unconvicted prisoners are only sitting in the prisons eating four straight meals a day, at great expense to us taxpayers, doing no work and planning mischief every day.

Over fifty years ago governments in the Western world decided to remove large printed numbers and ugly stripes on the clothing of prisoners, along with the stigma of inhuman and degrading treatment of offenders. Guyana became a part of that agreement when it became a member of the United Nations. Guyana is not living up to that agreement today as it dumps its prisoners in prison like cattle and forgets them. Are criminals bad people? Yes, they are. Are some criminals worse than others, absolutely. I am not defending these people, but they are in there because they were caught. What about those people who commit serious crimes and are not caught? Or caught but treated differently. Some foreigners had to come to this country to expose our mismanagement of the prison to us and to the world.

The four British consultants who came to Guyana and visited the prisons from July 1 to 7, stated among other things that the conditions they saw in the prisons were bordering on human rights violations.

A sad commentary. What are we going to do about it?

Yours faithfully,

William Richards