Marksmen Editorial
Stabroek News
March 31, 2002

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Last week a Guyana Information Agency (GINA) press release reported the Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj as reiterating that 90 per cent of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry set up following the 1999 jailbreak had been implemented. (The initial claim in earlier releases had been a 95 per cent implementation rate.) He was responding in the first instance to a report in our March 3 edition, which quoted Mr Peter Willems, the Chairman of that commission, as saying that the most important recommendations had not in fact been implemented. Mr Willems was later to say that he stood by his estimate "that not even close to 95% based on a quantitative weighting of the critical recommendations were implemented against the weighting of the less critical but easy to implement recommendations put in place."

It has to be said that Mr Willems' point that not all the recommendations carried the same weighting in terms of ensuring security at the jail has merit. The core of the 1999 proposals involved the installation of two towers at the north-eastern and south-eastern corners of the prison which were to be manned by skilled marksmen from outside the prison service. In addition, it was recommended that a no-go zone be established no less than ten feet from the perimeter fence through which no one could proceed without the permission of the Director of Prisons or his representative. Any unauthorized person entering the zone was to be subject to severe sanctions after an agreed warning system had sounded.

Only one of the towers was ever built, and it was never manned by marksmen, which Mr Willems regarded as being tantamount to not implementing the recommendation at all. When in a press release GINA raised possible legal considerations were police or army marksmen to have been placed in the tower, Mr Willems brushed them aside.

Whether or not there is any substance to the legal objections with regard to the marksmen, in fairness to the Government there are some other very serious objections. It is highly unlikely that at the time, either the public or the human rights organizations would have been prepared to accede to such an arrangement. The Camp Street facility is in the middle of a built-up area, and the danger of an accident where the wrong person is shot by a marksman in the course of a break-out, or even as a consequence of a melee which did not in itself have a jailbreak as its aim, is too great. If the marksman shot and hit the wrong target he would be in trouble, and if he didn't shoot at all because he couldn't get a clear target, he would be blamed for lack of response.

While the smuggling of a gun into the jail prior to February 23 is a new development in terms of local jailbreaks, it may be that the authorities were of the view in 1999 - and if so, not without reason - that the presence of an armed marksman in the tower would almost have guaranteed that would-be escapees would resort to the use of high-calibre weapons in their bid for freedom, and that they would have had to take into their calculations the need to take the marksman out. If, for example, they had assistance in their escape bid from bandits outside the jail, who had the job of taking on the marksman, then the public would be at obvious risk. In fact, the public could be at risk in a firefight even where there was no outside assistance for the escapees.

The problem is not that the recommendation of having an armed marksman in the tower(s) was rejected by the authorities, but that in rejecting it no viable alternative seems to have been considered. The perimeter fence - the traditional route for escapees - was made secure in accordance with the 1999 recommendations, and as Mr Willems pointed out, once that had been done, the only route out of the prison was through the gates. The towers, the marksmen and the no-go zone were all part of the plan to protect the gates, but without the marksmen, the truncated plan could not guarantee security for the exits.

As everyone has recognized, maintaining security in a jail as overcrowded as Camp Street is not easy. Where the Government has to be faulted is in not addressing the overcrowding problem at a much earlier stage. If they had looked at amending the law and at justice reform early on in their administration, then they probably would not have found themselves on the defensive now. It was Chancellor Desiree Bernard who revealed at the Magistrates' Conference on March 9, that forty-one per cent of all prisoners in Camp Street were on remand, and that the majority of the remainder were serving sentences of one to six months. Alternative penalties to imprisonment for minor offences, a much beefed-up probation service to supervise those alternatives, and moving the backlog of cases would reduce the dimensions of the security problem at Camp Street dramatically.

President Jagdeo has already promised action on those fronts; let's hope the Government doesn't operate at its usual snail's pace before something is implemented.