The Camp Street jailbreak Editorial
Stabroek News
March 5, 2002

Related Links: Articles on Mashramani Day Jailbreak
Letters Menu Archival Menu

There is no tradition in this country of killing prison officers. That is not to say that a few have not died in the course of the discharge of their duties in the past, it is just that this has been a rarity. The murder of Mr Troy Williams, therefore, and the shooting of Mrs Roxanne Winfield, mark the crossing of a divide in relations between warders and prisoners in the Camp Street jail. We have entered an altogether different dimension.

Traditionally, prisoners have always scaled the wall at Camp Street, and there has never been any need on their part to confront prison officers. Ironically, it was the partial implementation of recommendations following the last major Georgetown jailbreak on August 29, 1999, which brought the prison staff into the line of fire. By making the perimeter fence secure with the placing of iron spikes and razor wire, the only route out of the jail for escapees became the prison gates. And guarding the gates were prison officers.

The Commission of Inquiry which was set up following the 1999 break-out recognized the potential danger to warders of securing the fence, and it is for this reason that it recommended (among other things) the installation of two guard towers at the north-eastern and south-eastern corners of the jail, from which vantage points it would be possible to see everything that went on in the compound and along the fence. In an interview with this newspaper published in our Sunday edition, the Chairman of that Commission, Mr Peter Willems, said that the members had recommended that these installations should be manned by skilled marksmen from outside the prison service.

In fact, as he pointed out, only one tower was ever erected, and it has not been manned by marksmen, but by female prison officers. In fairness to the authorities, however, one can understand why they balked at placing marksmen in the single security tower they did actually construct. In the absence of a tradition of killing warders, and where the possible escape scenarios might have involved unarmed prisoners rushing the guard at the inner gate to relieve him/her of the keys, and then overpowering the guard at the outer gate, the shooting of inmates by a marksman would most likely not have been acceptable to the public. In addition, the powers that be might have reasoned that to have armed marksmen in the tower, or to arm some other officers on normal duty would have been to invite the use of firearms by prisoners making escape bids.

The underlying problem at the Georgetown jail, of course, is massive overcrowding, as was pointed out last week by the Guyana Human Rights Association in addition to several other organizations. It is no secret either, as President Jagdeo admitted in a press briefing, that that overcrowding is the product of a sluggish judicial system which has men on remand for years, and unimaginative legal provisions relating to sentencing, which cause people to be committed to jail for minor offences.

While it is true that the criminal justice system is currently under review, and that the President has said that there will have to be amendments to the law, such changes are some time in the indefinite future. In the meantime, there is a security crisis at the Camp Street prison.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that all the security recommendations of the Willems report plus any others which this latest Commission suggests, are to be implemented, and the institution is totally battened down from an escape point of view. Given the level of overcrowding, there is then the risk of something which the Brazilian prison system, and to a lesser degree the Venezuelan one too, are all familiar with - namely, regular violent prison riots. We have had disturbances in both Georgetown, and more particularly, Mazaruni, but still nothing on the scale of that which our neighbours experience on an ongoing basis.

Considering the conditions inside the jail, we have been lucky prior to February 23. Perhaps the possibility of scaling the fence was a kind of escape valve; perhaps even clambering on the Camp Street roof functioned in this way - it happened three times last year, and Andrew Douglas was one of the mountaineers.

In other words, if the Georgetown prison is to be made escape proof, the internal conditions have also to be humanised at the same time, otherwise the prison officers - and by extension the public - might be put at even greater risk.

In addition to the major systemic problems of overcrowding and poor physical conditions inside the jail, there is a third one noted by Mr Willems, and that is the level of fraternization between prison officers and prisoners. The previous Commission found that there had been collusion in Melville's jailbreak, and it is difficult to believe that there was not collusion involving the smuggling in of the gun this time too, if not in other aspects of the escape as well.

The prison service, like the police force and other agencies in this country, suffers from a human resource problem. Its officers are underpaid, and the service in general has been the victim of declining professional standards and low morale. Recruitment has been a serious problem, and the shortage of staff in the Camp Street prison has necessitated the employment of larger numbers of female officers than is perhaps judicious for the authority structure of a male penal institution.

The answer to the fraternization problem is not an easy one. Certainly, professional training such as advanced self-defence techniques recommended by the Commission of 1999, should be looked at again. Could we dare hope too that the events of February 23, have delivered such a shock to the prison officer fraternity, that those who are tempted to collude in the future will consider the consequences carefully first? If there are indeed warders who facilitated this latest break-out, they will surely live to the end of their days with an intolerable burden on their consciences.

For all of that, it must be said that the prison service can be immensely proud of Mr Williams and Mrs Winfield. In an age when the word 'hero' is used with such careless abandon, Prison Officer Williams was a genuine hero. The evidence from both official and unofficial sources seems to agree that he did not hesitate to go to the aid of Prison Officer Winfield on the inner gate, and that unarmed as he was, he put up a struggle against five armed men. Mrs Winfield herself must have resisted handing over the keys if the escapees thought it necessary to shoot her, thereby attracting attention to themselves.

The current crisis in the Camp Street facility was reached over a period of many years. It cannot be put right tomorrow or next week. The public will have to understand that the best that can be done at the moment will be short-term security measures, until longer-term solutions can come on stream.