There are approximately 2,000 prisoners in the five facilities in Georgetown, New Amsterdam, Mazaruni, Lusignan and Timehri. Of these 35 percent is on remand awaiting trial. The Georgetown Prison at Camp Street was designed to accommodate 600 prisoners but holds nearly 1,000. Violent incidents or escapes have occurred in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Mazaruni in the past. There was always a great fear among those responsible for security that Camp Street could explode at any time. The problem of overcrowding was well known.
The recent studies and reports are as follows:
- In 2001 a comprehensive report by a British team on prison reform was made in 2001. It found overcrowding, violations of human rights, inadequate alternatives to incarceration, poor conditions for prisoners and staff and minimal scope for rehabilitation.
- In 2001 the Guyana Prison Service produced a ten-year Strategic Development Plan for 2001-2011 after reports, workshops, retreats and visits.
- In 2002 the Carter Centre presented a report calling for a review of the criminal justice system including the system of imprisonment.
- Also in 2002 the Kennard Commission of Inquiry into the February 2002 jailbreak concluded that it would not have occurred if the prisoners had been transferred to Mazaruni.
- In 2004 the Report of the Disciplined Services Commission chaired by Justice Ian Chang made 28 recommendations for improvements to the prisons, increased staff, increasing the capacity of Mazaruni to deal with dangerous prisoners and others.
- In 2009 a 68-page report made by a team led by Lloyd Nickram, a Management Specialist in the Public Service Ministry, made much the same recommendations as the previous reports and identified the main cause of chronic overcrowding as the large number of remands and imprisonment for petty crimes. (See SN 25/2/10).
- The Georgetown Prison Visiting Committee reports every year to the Minister repeating the same litany of overcrowding and other problems.
Having regard to all of the studies and reports outlined above, any further investigation into prison conditions by the Inquiry headed by Justice Patterson, except the proximate causes for the recent events, will be a useless exercise. The problems have already been clearly and repeatedly defined. Lack of political will and political energy are responsible for the failure to implement the recommendations. The Inquiry would do well to gather the reports, combine the recommendations and list them in order of priority, separating the short-term tasks from the long- term.
The short-term tasks that can bring immediate relief are the substantial reduction of prisoners by modern, non-custodial, sentencing laws and policies for minor offences, a more creative policy with regard to bail and an annual review by the Director of Public Prosecutions of every case of a prisoner awaiting trial for more than two years. It may be found that some cases cannot proceed because witnesses are not available or for other reasons. It makes no sense to keep those prisoners in prison. They can be freed or released on bail, even if on murder charges.
The Inquiry would also do well to consider recommending the appointment of a permanent, multi-agency, task force on prison reform to drive the process of reform without which it will once again languish in bureaucratic inertia. The most important factor, however, is political will and governmental parsimony. At the best of times the prison and the judiciary are the two step sisters who are starved when funds become scarce. They do not bring in votes at election time so they receive no political priority.
The Judiciary should take a bold stand. A Board of Visiting Justices, comprising members of the judiciary, is required to be appointed by the Minister under section 47 of the Prison Act. All judges and magistrates are ex-officio visiting justices for each of the prisons of Guyana. Visiting justices have a right to inquire into the food, diet, clothing, treatment and conduct of prisoners. Abuses and irregularities are required to be investigated. It is wrong for the magistracy and judiciary to violate the human rights of citizens by sending them into inhuman conditions in prisons, and they should so declare. If this happens, the rapid pace of reform would surprise everyone.
In addition, at remand time for prisoners at the end of each criminal assizes, the judiciary has a responsibility of examining the circumstances of prisoners and affording them or their lawyers an opportunity of being heard before they are further remanded to atrocious conditions, which I believe is their right. Justice Roxanne George was on the right track when she attempted to grapple with the issue once but encountered a negative response from the authorities. This might be a more opportune time.
Guyana’s judiciary must be conscious of the fact, or made conscious of it, that the Canadian Supreme Court in the case of Morin v Her Majesty the Queen and the Attorney General in 1992 set eight months as the time limit for a trial of a person who is incarcerated beyond which his/her constitutional right to a trial within reasonable time is being violated. Are the constitutional rights of Guyanese prisoners less valuable than those of Canadian prisoners?