The announcement by the Minister of Home Affairs, a while back, to commit more resources to the maintenance and upgrading of the country’s prisons and the welfare of prisoners, as part of a prison reform package, was very welcome news; but the measures that have so far been outlined have not addressed the enormity of the problem.
In the past decade alone, there have been too many jailbreaks and riots in the nation’s prisons, arising from prisoners’ dissatisfaction with their conditions. The prison breakout of 2002 from the Camp Street facility, of course, needs no elaboration. It is very apparent that the only kind of upgrading that the prisons require is a complete rebuilding of the infrastructure.
Most of our prisons were built by the colonial authorities, and they have not seen any form of expansion or modernisation since then. With the exponential increase in crime, the prisons have received more inmates that they were ever designed to hold, and they have become congested beyond belief.
Poor funding has always been a major issue in prison administration. Running a prison ought not to be just a matter of expediency or retribution: there are the issues of justice and rehabilitation, in addition to punishment. In addition, the prison levels should be more properly defined.
The level of security and treatment should be determined by the severity of felony: a minimum prison should be different from a medium prison, and both from a maximum prison. In Guyana, every prison is currently a maximum prison, including the cells at police stations.
But the problem with our prisons is really jurisprudential, with a direct effect on the justice administration system. The justice system in Guyana frequently comes across as accusatorial, abusive and punitive.
Most citizens pray that they never have anything to do with the justice system in Guyana. From the police station to the courts, to the prisons, the accused person is exposed to various forms of humiliation.
The unprofessionalism of the Guyanese police needs not be revisited: even the various Commissioners have been forced to concede the fall in standards.
To the ordinary citizen, even the question of bail appears to be an arbitrary one, and station bail transforms the police stations into courts of law – even for minor traffic breaches. Many Guyanese would rather pay the ransom than face the humiliation.
In the meantime, the accused person is remanded in prison custody where, after a few days of exposure to raw inhumanity, he or she becomes a changed person for life.
The worst victims are the persons “awaiting trial”. There are hundreds of inmates in Guyanese prisons in this category, and they are all packed in with the convicted prisoners.
Worst of all, some of them take years to get to trial. It is an indictment of the justice system. Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied. The courts are over-burdened; the judges are over-worked; prosecutors and investigators are handicapped.
In other parts of the world, the prison is a correctional facility. The philosophy is that human beings can be reformed and made to adapt to new behaviour. Jurisprudentially, wrongdoers are given a chance to redeem themselves.
This is why, in the United States, they have such options as parole, suspended sentences, and hours of community work. Many states have also abandoned the death penalty. In stricter juristic systems, the prison system is no less reformatory.
Prison reform must be targeted at the jurisprudential question. This is the challenge for the minister. Anyone who has a contact with the justice system must be treated with dignity and respect. Our prisons must become correctional facilities, not hell-holes.
The prisons that were built by the colonial authorities were informed by both colonial and racist considerations and were meant for a smaller population. So much has changed in Guyana since 1966, but we have found no cause to change the colonial orientation of our prisons, even though we are supposedly “anti-colonial”.
Prison reform cannot be done in isolation, it must be part of a comprehensive justice administration reform including the police and the courts’ system. Training and re-training for the police, warders, prosecutors and court staff, and an all-out war against corruption within the justice administration system, would be most essential. The emphasis of the prison system should be correction and rehabilitation.