Mash Day jailbreak was hard lesson for prison system
- Erskine
Stabroek News
December 16, 2003

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Last year's jailbreak exposed the vulnerability of the prison system, which needs more trained people and more resources to manage the volatile prison population.

"[The jailbreak] was a turning point for us. It showed us how vulnerable the system is and how alert we have to be," Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine, said yesterday, during his testimony before the Disciplined Forces Commission.

The commission is reviewing the Disciplined Forces and will make recommendations to the National Assembly for their reform. For the prison services, this means implementing changes for improving the current prison estates, rehab programmes and staff development, according to Erskine.

He said the prison estates at Georgetown, Lusignan, Timehri, New Amsterdam and at Mazaruni, needed to be expanded to ensure the security\safety of prisoners and the prison staff. The expansion of the facilities is expected to make it easier to monitor the inmates and implement the rehabilitation programmes.

There are 1,147 inmates in the prison system and at least 47% of this number, are persons charged with capital offences. Segregating hardcore criminals from petty offenders is one of the aims of the prison administration, though the overcrowding of the system makes this difficult.

In the case of the Georgetown Prison - which has a capacity for 660 inmates and now houses 550 - he said the necessity of relocating the institution had been recognised.

A site has already been identified at Soesdyke, though Erskine admitted that the prison might not be constructed until 2012, given the availability of resources.

"It can be done on an incremental basis over the next [few] years... but they have to start now. Now is the time to start rather than waiting for all the money at one time," Erskine said.

Equally important, he noted, was ensuring the rehabilitation of the prison population, 95% of which returned to society after serving time in prison, at an annual rate of about 800. "That is why we need to develop receive and reintegrate them into society... there must be a deliberate effort by government to set up agencies to deal with ex-prisoners."

Rehabilitation in the prison is now only done on a voluntary basis, primarily by church groups. Erskine believes that non-governmental organisations are more committed to this task than state institutions and he says government should fund these agencies.

On February 23, 2002, five prisoners staged an escape from the Georgetown prison, leaving one prison officer dead and another critically injured.

The escape resulted in an immediate surge in crime, unparalleled in Guyana's history.

An inquiry undertaken by former chancellor Cecil Kennard uncovered the failures in the security features of the prison, various breaches in the prison regulations and complicity on the part of some prison officers.

At least 95% of the recommendations that came out of the Cecil Kennard Inquiry into the jailbreak have been implemented, though notable exceptions include increasing the prison staff and the dismissal of certain officers.

In fact, Erskine said no prison officer was sanctioned after the report, though he said some were transferred.

In July of that year, Erskine wrote a detailed letter to the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, seeking assistance to implement some reforms, including increasing the staff strength. To date there has been no written response.

He pointed out that the prison system had recorded only six escapes for the year, the first single figure escape total in the last 30 years. In fact, in the last four years, he said escapes had reduced dramatically.

The backlog of cases in the judicial system created an enabling environment for the jailbreak, according to Erskine.

He said there was a need for more collaboration between the judiciary and the prison services to make the criminal justice system more efficient.

There has been some progress, as the judiciary has sought to intervene to reduce the population in the prison, which fell from about 1,400 in 2001 to 1,147 in 2003.

But Erskine said there were still many people in prison who should not be there, particularly those who have been remanded, who make up a large part of the prison population. His solution to the problem is alternative sentencing.

He also considered parole an essential option to reduce overcrowding. He believes that all long-term prisoners should be given parole opportunities as the system has been successful since it was implemented.

To monitor the 1,147 prisoners in the system, the prisons are now operating with a collective staff numbering 360; this figure should be 452 and the prison administration hopes to increase it to 506.

Erskine said staff development was also important because prisoners were now more sophisticated, more educated and had more resources at their disposal. He said a more ideal ratio of prison officer to inmate would be between one for every ten inmates or one for every 20.