Prison head moots alternative sentencing to jail time
--- will assure more manageable inmate population by Nivedta Kowlessar
Guyana Chronicle
December 23, 2003

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DIRECTOR of the Guyana Prison Service, Dale Erskine, has raised the need for alternative sentencing (community service) for a more manageable inmate population.

"There's a saying that once a man goes to prison, he will return, (so) if you can avoid sending him it is's useful to have alternatives," he told the Disciplined Forces Commission recently.

Erskine pointed out that some inmates have been on remand for three to four years and rectifying the problem would entail a holistic approach by the Judiciary, Police and Probation and Welfare Department.

He suggested consideration be given to how long a prisoner has been incarcerated while awaiting trial, before he or she is sentenced. The introduction of halfway houses of placement centres is addressed in a four-year strategic plan to improve the prison system overall.

Testifying before the Commission at the Supreme Court Law Library in Georgetown, Erskine also called for more visits to prisons by the Judiciary, according to the rules.

He said the problem of overcrowding is linked to administrative delays and there is need for more speed in the preparation of depositions, for example.

Steps to improve the situation this year have resulted in a higher rate of convictions (73 per cent) and the lowering of remand cases (27 per cent).

Parole is also essential to reducing overcrowding, Erskine noted, advising the Commission that there has been "magnificent" success with the system that gives prisoners an opportunity to be useful on his return to society.

He pointed to the need for psychological help, reporting that probation and welfare services have not been very good, with one officer having to deal with some 600 inmates. Women, especially, require such help because of the consideration of how their children will be taken care of while they are serving time. The four-year plan caters for specialised staff to handle these cases.

Erskine also discussed the absence of a Georgetown facility for females on remand, saying they are ususally kept at the East La Penitence Police Station.

The Director said Prison Service staff require more "in-depth, specialised" training to deal with custodial issues, apart from the regular Police-Army input.

One objective of the four-year plan is the identification of custodial ranks. "These days, everybody doing everything and we need to separate that," Erskine told the Commission.

He said the Service is "more meticulous now" in ensuring that its recruits meet the right standards in an effort to strengthen its base.

Reports of corruption and the wholesaling and retailing of drugs, cigarette lighters and pepper sauce, among other items, in the Georgetown Prison, were put to Erskine during the hearing.

The Commission's Legal Advisor, Bertlyn Reynolds, said it was reported that prisoners with carpentry skills have built double walls for the encachement of smuggled stuff.

Erskine said these have been "age old" problems, reporting that about 60 per cent of prisoners smoke marijuana, for example. He, however, noted that such things do not occur in the sight of prison officers.

These problems, prevalent at the Camp Street jail, which has the highest number of inmates (550) and is located close to the community, and cannot be controlled without vibrant intelligence, he added.

The issue of double walls will be countered when concrete structures are used in the new prison to be built at Soesdyke. The Camp Street jail will be relocated there.

The Commission, which recently wrapped up hearings, was mandated to investigate the Prison and Fire Services and Police and Army. It has three months to conclude its final report.

The body, chaired by Appeal Court Judge, Ian Chang, comprised Senior Counsel, Charles Ramson, Brigadier (ret'd) David Granger, Attorney-at-law, Anil Nandlall and Maggie Beirne of the Commission of the Administration of Justice, Northern Ireland. Beirne only served in the Police inquiry.