What is going on in our prisons?

Stabroek News
July 17, 2001

There is something seriously wrong with Guyana's prison system, and it need not have taken a United Kingdom Prison Reform team to see it. And while the recommendations of Alastair Papps and team from the International Consultancy Group of the British Government's Cabinet Office Centre for Management and Policy Studies in London are invaluable, their immediate implementation is crucial to keeping a lid on the situation and protecting the populace, especially in view of the location of the main facility.

Sixteen prison inmates took to the roof of the Georgetown Prison in Camp Street last week, in what could now be viewed as a norm for that facility. They raised their voices against long waiting periods for trials and abysmal conditions. They alleged that they were beaten, poorly fed, denied medical attention and not allowed to use their skills.

A look at the 16 men revealed that none of them wore prison garb, although at least ten of them were convicts who were already sentenced, and one was a lifer. Further, most of them wore shorts with rope-type drawstrings; at least three wore jewellery (rings, chains and a band were visible) and one had on sunglasses. They could very well have been actors trying out for a role in a prison film.

Responding to the allegations of abuse made by the prisoners, Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine, had admitted that a few of the prisoners had genuine concerns and others had just joined the bandwagon, while some might have been forced to do so. He told this newspaper that a prisoner had slit his wrists and fainted after assaulting a prison officer. The question is, what did the prisoner use to slit his wrists? What if he had used that same weapon to slit the officer's throat during the reported altercation?

Concern over the ease with which prisoners accessed the roof had been expressed time and again, as well as how recent prison breaks had been committed with the minimum of effort. This had led to the institution of additional security measures, including a guard tower and cameras. So how come no one saw 16 men climbing onto the prison roof to stop them? The prison is grossly understaffed, Mr Erskine said -- an explanation guaranteed to increase the numbers of insomniacs in the city. Will the situation be allowed to reach the point where prisoners could just walk out the gates?

One prisoner threatened to burn the prison, if their demands were not met. This could well have been an idle threat, but what if it wasn't? In recent months Brazil has seen at least three prison revolts, in which guards and visitors were held hostage for days. These should have been a learning experience for us.

In response to an observation about the effectiveness or lack thereof of the local parole system, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Randolph Williams, said that they were short staffed because of the employment freeze. The Home Ministry should lobby government for an exemption for this essential service. And the same urgency being afforded the Guyana Police Force in recruitment should be extended to the Guyana Prison Service. Neither agency can really afford to be short staffed.

The UK Prison Reform Team had recommended the setting up of a high level Commission on Criminal Justice as the entire system needed to be reformed. This will be a long-term project. In the meantime, the government should declare the prison - the Georgetown Prison - a disaster area. Emergency measures should be put in place to assist Mr Erskine and his hardy crew of faithful officers to continue to perform. There is only so much that so few can do.