Director tells DFC...
Georgetown Prison removal necessary to improve security by Nivedta Kowlessar
Guyana Chronicle
December 16, 2003

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DIRECTOR of Prisons, Dale Erskine, yesterday told the Defence Forces Commission that the removal of the Georgetown Prison to another strategic site at Soesdyke is "necessary".

The land has already been identified and the move is covered in a four-year plan to improve the country's prison system overall, he said.

Erskine testified before the Commission, now conducting a public inquiry into the Prison Service, at the Supreme Court Law Library, South Road and King Streets, Georgetown. The body has also been mandated to investigate the Fire Service, Police and Army.

He said the new prison should be in place by 2012, suggesting that the Government could consider building it in phases, which will be more financially manageable. "Now is the time to start," Erskine, accompanied by several colleagues at the daylong hearing, told the Commission.

With some 1100 inmates, 550 of whom are in Georgetown and the others at Lusignan, New Amsterdam, Timehri and Mazaruni, he said segregation was one the biggest problems facing the prison administration.

A lack of space has prevented separation of hard-core and petty criminals, those who are of unsound mind and sex offenders, for example.

Erskine also said he needs more trained staff, reporting that there are now 360 prison officers instead of 506, with the ratio being one officer to about 67 inmates, when it should be one to 10.

But he said there have been improvements since 2001 when, according to a report by three British prison officers, there was a crisis arising from a "classic combination" of too many prisoners, too few staff, inadequate management and poor physical conditions. The report was cited by Commissioner, Attorney-at-Law, Anil Nandlall, during the hearing.

According to Erskine, the prison population has been reduced by about 300; more structures have increased space, paving the way for inmates to be segregated in terms of security classification next year. And there is a plan to maximise the use of resources for better security and training needs.

"We're now on a solid footing and we know where we're going," he added, saying the four-year plan emerged from the British officers' report.

A collaborative effort between the Prison Service, Judiciary, Magistracy, Police and Guyana Bar Association, among other agencies, has also brought about improvements, Erskine advised.

However, in its report to the Commission, the Service said its equipment do not match

the security needs of an "increasingly violent, aggressive and dangerous inmate population". It said the Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Mazaruni facilities were most vulnerable to escape, riots, hostage taking and fires.

The report noted that the changing nature of the character of a prisoner and increasingly violent criminal environment necessitate that the quality and type of weapons and technology be improved to suppress or prevent any threat.

Erskine pointed to dangers posed, given that 46 per cent of the remand population are capital offenders; the Georgetown prison is in close city perimeters and the Mazaruni location bordered by a river. He said with these considerations, any combined, thoughtful plan is imminent at all times and likely to succeed.

Even with more weapons and the installation of surveillance cameras, there is need to improve on existing equipment to meet changing prison requirements. Erskine noted that the inmates might be fewer, but more dangerous today.

Going through the Prison Service report with the Commission's Legal Advisor, Bertlyn Reynolds, he said the February 23, 2002 jailbreak, which led to violent crime wave, was a factor in determining security needs.

"The criminals today are far different than those of previous years. They're far more cunning, far more deceptive...a lot of smiling faces and devious hearts," Erskine observed.

"It is really difficult for you to see into these guys. The only thing that could help is surveillance cameras, to strengthen our security systems to allow us to monitor them in a more sustained way," he added.

But the jailbreak occurred even with such cameras in place. Erskine attributed this to 'blind spots' that are being addressed.

"It (the escape) was a turning point for us. It highlights for us how vulnerable the prison system could be in terms of security and how much alert we need to be," he said.

Erskine noted the need for a holistic approach involving not just equipment, but intelligence gathering and an understanding of the environment.

He said the Prison Service was satisfying its mandate by 90 per cent to ensure the safe custody of offenders in order to protect the rest of the society. However, Nandlall questioned this, pointing to testimony by Erskine that there were six small escapes this year. The Director said it was the first time in 30 years that that figure was confined to a single digit, reflecting a 65 per cent reduction.

It is a "performance indicator," said Erskine, adding, "when you look at the deficiencies we have, it could be a hundred."

Later, he explained to Commissioner, ret'd Brigadier, David Granger, that agitation leading to roof protests and escapes is linked to trial delays, and such. "Our peace in the prison is dependent on external agencies - the Courts, Police, economic conditions...laws like the Narcotics (Act).

Erskine also said there was a social 'time bomb' with dangers posed by prisoners released

after serving terms for committing serious crimes. He said many are "all around" in Georgetown and without proper efforts to reintegrate them to re-enter society, they could be used to get into unlawful activities.

He said there has to be community "safety nets" and Government structures to deal with ex-prisoners in a "specific, deliberate way". Potential criminals must also be targeted in the holistic approach to controlling crime, he suggested earlier.

The Commission, chaired by Appeal Court Judge, Ian Chang, will resume hearing at 09:00 hours today.