Prison break-out report unfair, fails to explore overcrowding
- human rights body Stabroek News
June 15, 2002

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The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) says that the report of the Board of Enquiry into the escape of five prisoners from the Georgetown Prison on February 23 is unfair and barely acknowledges the issue of overcrowding which it says is the defining factor in prison life.

The GHRA in a press release said it did not wish to suggest the prison officials were blameless, but "to focus entirely on their mistakes without reference to their conditions of work, is boorish and unfair."

The human rights body pointed out that although the Report quoted the Prison Director’s figures of 10 officers per shift and 800 inmates, it did not make a connection between a ratio of 1 to 80 inmates and the consequent stressful and dangerous work environment.

The release said that the report failed to recognise that this ratio increases the scope for ‘no go areas’, gangs running rackets and reduced intelligence about what is being planned. Rather, the report sees nothing but fraternising with prisoners, weakness and irresponsibility, the GHRA commented.

Running an overcrowded prison with a high ratio of hardened criminals requires a very steady hand, the release noted, since too much pressure could cause a ‘blow up’. Referring to the violent riots and deaths in Venezuelan and Brazilian prisons, the release said that that demonstrates regularly how easy it is to get it wrong.

Were it not for the fact that the great majority of the inmates at the Camp Street prison are well-behaved, such break-outs could be a weekly affair, regardless of how much wire is heaped on the walls, the GHRA posited.

The human rights body suggested that the enquiry should have devoted time to examining whether the security failures reflect a new situation in the prison or were an unfortunate lapse in an approach that can basically work.

And the government was also advised that rather than implement what the GHRA described as the "vindictive and calculated" recommendations relating to the Guyana Prison Service (GPS), it would be better to "analyse the escape within the framework of ongoing plans to improve the security and efficiency of Camp Street prison."

Declaring that the report reads like a "political initiative to slander the senior echelon of the GPS for some ulterior motive," the GHRA said that the prison service has no control over the numbers sent to the prison, and that fact puts the judiciary, rather than the GPS, in the spotlight.

According to the release, the chairman of the enquiry, Cecil Kennard, was Chancellor of the Judiciary during the period when prison overcrowding reached its zenith. The release said further that Kennard therefore had a vested interest in ensuring the "net was cast no wider than the GPS in search of culprits" and for that reason he should have excused himself from the committee on the grounds of conflict of interest.

"The complete absence of any reference to ‘remand’ as opposed to convicted prisoners ... is the most telling evidence that the Report is intended to deflect attention away from the Judiciary - since the term ‘remand’ immediately reminds the reader of the judicial dimension of the problem," GHRA said.

The release charged that as Chancellor, Kennard visited the central prison once, then ignored the overcrowding problem. This indictment, the release continued, is supported by a statement on page 26 of the Report that "It is beyond our comprehension that the population of high profile prisoners is as much as two hundred and fifty. We cannot imagine that about one-third of the prison population comprise of high profile prisoners."

"Where exactly did the former Chancellor think his judges were sending all these high profile prisoners?" the GHRA asked.

The GHRA also argued that the distance of the Report from the reality of the Camp Street prison was further reflected in the recommendations that ‘high profile’ prisoners be denied opportunities to play games, that prison officers, even off-duty staff, should not have taken part in the Mashramani celebrations.

The Report is "as disdainful of members of the Prison Service as it is of prisoners," the release contended.