The callaloo connection Editorial
Stabroek News
January 31, 2007

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Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee recently told this newspaper that he had identified a connection between the escape of inmates from the Mazaruni Prison and a similar escape from the Lusignan Prison in 1999. In both cases, he said, prisoners protested about the quality of their food, in particular a diet of callaloo, just before the jail-break. "So there seems to be a big issue with this 'callaloo' at prisons and we have to get to the bottom of it," the Minister warned.

The minister is quite correct. A daily diet of callaloo and rice for prisoners serving a 25-year sentence can be a bit thick. But were he to get to the bottom of things, Mr Rohee would find much more than boring callaloo.

In addition to badly prepared meals, the conditions caused by congested cells; manky mattresses; intimidation by staff; beatings by bullies; poor health care and personal hygiene; lack of training, recreation and constructive activity are day-to-day realities of prison life. In addition, perennial problems of rotting infrastructure; delays in court procedures which result in large numbers of pre-trial or remand prisoners being held for long periods awaiting trial; and shortage of supervisory staff which results in being locked down for excessive periods, all fuel frustration.

Idle prisoners are dangerous prisoners. Far too frequently, frustration, inactivity and irritation explode in rage, riots, roof-top demonstrations and attempted escapes, in part to call public attention to prisoners' problems and to receive better treatment. Minister of Home Affairs Gail Teixeira was able to quell the August riots last year, for example, simply by agreeing to provide the short-term amenities requested to relieve the prisoners' atrocious living conditions. But the long-term problems still remain unresolved.

Few politicians think it worthwhile to build a new prison or provide tasty meals for criminals when the same money could be used to build a new school for children or supply nutritious meals to disadvantaged families. When asked to comment on inmates' complaints about the lack of soap and toilet paper, Mr Rohee iterated the old bromide that they were prisoners and "should not expect to live in five-star hotels."

Although the ill-starred service boasts five prisons at Georgetown; Mazaruni; New Amsterdam; Lusignan; and Timehri, their ramshackle condition requires regular maintenance, the distances apart exhaust meagre transport resources and supervision and security absorb already scarce staff. These prisons, for which the Ministry of Home Affairs is responsible, seem doomed to remain an archipelago of unconcern and backwardness. Mr Rohee, nevertheless, has the opportunity to break the cycle of neglect by re-reading the recommendations of the report handed seven years ago to his predecessor but one, Mr Ronald Gajraj, by the Britishers Alastair Papps, Arthur de Frisching and Brian Fellowes.

Without considering the recommendations of previous commissions of inquiry, it would be otiose to convene new ones; they simply restate old truths. Based on a series of consultancy reports, retreats, workshops and visits, the Guyana Prison Service produced its own substantial, ten-year 2001-2011 Strategic Development Plan. The Minister can do no better than to put the stamp of his authority on that plan, marshal the administrative support of his ministry behind it, and convince the cabinet and the Ministry of Finance to implement it.

If, for example, the Mazaruni Prison were to be fully rehabilitated and expanded as recommended, security could be enhanced, capacity could be increased, and troublesome prisoners could be transferred there from the other prisons. More important, the farm could be expanded to grow cabbage and cassava in addition to callaloo. That should change the prisoners' lives!