Prison reform Editorial
Stabroek News
March 12, 2002

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The overcrowding of the Camp street prison which has existed for some time is probably the single factor most responsible for regular excursions of prisoners on the roof and occasional jailbreaks. Now it has reportedly been established in a preliminary report of the Mc Kay committee set up to review the criminal justice system that 41 per cent of the 83l prison population of the Georgetown jail is on remand, and the majority of the other prisoners are serving short sentences of one to six months. In other words, if criminal cases could be heard more expeditiously thus reducing the large number of prisoners on remand and if more use could be made by the courts of non-custodial sentences such as fines, probation and community service when dealing with relatively trivial offences there could be a dramatic reduction in the prison population. To make the latter viable, probation and community service facilities and procedures would have to be strengthened.

Fortunately, the judiciary now seems to be taking notice of this problem and the Chancellor on Saturday called on magistrates to tackle the backlog of prisoners waiting for trial, in a few cases for several years. She urged them to be more disciplined in their approach to their work and to be punctual and, where there is an appeal, to write memoranda of their reasons for decision without delay so the appeal could be heard by the Full Court. The same comments could be addressed to most of her brethren in the judiciary.

The concomitant issue of the granting of bail also needs to be dealt with. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act should be amended to make it possible to grant bail in all prosecutions for possession of drugs as distinct from trafficking in drugs. In other cases too bail is sometimes refused whimsically as letters to our columns attest.

Overcrowding, therefore, is a major problem, and it is interesting to note that the prison population per l00,000 is higher in Guyana (200) than it is in Brazil (l05) and Venezuela (ll0) though it is lower than Trinidad (365) and Barbados (295) and the USA (645). But in addition, as part of a broader plan for prison reform, the relevant legislation should be reviewed and updated, remand time should be allowed to count towards any sentence imposed and release on parole supervision should be significantly increased. Prison security also needs to be improved to avoid jailbreaks and a fresh look should be taken at earlier recommendations, in particular to prevent guns or other weapons being thrown in or smuggled in through food or by means of visitors or wardens.

A new prison would be extremely costly and would take a lot of time to construct. There may be no need for this if some of the above steps can be taken. In Mr Dale Erskine there is an experienced and intelligent Director of Prisons who is perfectly capable of supervising and implementing the necessary reform. What has been lacking is the political (ministerial) will to provide the impetus and the funds. Perhaps the recent jailbreak and the resulting death and severe injury to two prison officers will create a new incentive for change. The research has been done and reports exist, including a recent one by a British Consultancy Group. The recommendations of the Mc Kay committee will no doubt also be valuable. But what is needed now is not further reports but action to amend the laws as suggested and to implement some of the other proposals.