73% of prison staff under qualified, prison system understaffed
– $902M allocated, millions more than last year’s budget
By Rabindra Rooplall
At the Guyana Prison Services (GPS) less than three quarters of staff – 73 per cent – have qualifications at the level of primary school and vocational studies, 17 per cent of staff possess CXC qualifications and 10 per cent are in receipt of qualifications beyond primary education. This is according to the strategic plan 2010-2015 of the GPS.
It was also noted that while the latter may be sufficient for custodial responsibilities, these statistics appear to suggest that critical gaps might be existing at supervisory and managerial levels as well as in the correctional area which is key to successful offender rehabilitation.
In this year’s budget, $902M was allocated for the prison service to execute its functions. The GPS main functions are perceived to rest on two pillars which are custodial and correctional. The Prison (Amendment) Bill 2009 has attempted to provide a legislative response to the most immediate of the numerous challenges that have emerged over time.
Since 1953, the GPS has been under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Home Affairs. Under the Act, the Minister has powers that present an oversight framework for ensuring that the GPS functions effectively.
The Minister is required to appoint a Board of Visiting Justices as well as a Visiting Committee (civilians) for each prison. However, this has not been done for years.
Members of the committee may visit the prison at any time and may inspect any part of such prison, may inquire into and examine the food, diet, clothing, treatment and conduct of prisoners; may hear complaints from prisoners; may question any member of staff or prisoners and shall ascertain as far as possible whether the provisions of the Act or the Prison Rules are being complied with.
These bodies are expected to submit periodic written reports to the Minister on their findings. This, also, is not done in compliance with the law, although the law seems convenient to persons in offices that choose to implement a partial system.
Although the government may proclaim that it subscribes to correctional functions as well as custodial. Responsibilities are blurred and ranks have complained of having to function in both correctional and custodial areas from time to time, especially in the light of staff shortages in both the custodial and correctional functions.
This is an issue that needs an urgent review of the organisational structure of the GPS in order to clearly define the two functions since unclear definition of roles and responsibilities can blur accountability.
Although statistics have indicated that in 2010 there are almost 1200 inmates in the Camp Street prison facility, and 68 per cent of them are within the age group 16 to 35.
Reports reveal the Ministry of Home Affairs is addressing the issue of overcrowding from several angles. These include, reviewing the Parole Board with the aim of increasing the number of offenders released on parole; increased requests/ recommendations for Presidential Sentence reduction; enforcing Segregation Policies and increased advocacy for a shift to greater use of alternative sentencing – community service.
Records further revealed that the authorised staff establishment of the GPS is 502 positions. However, the actual staff at January 2010 was 389.
Although the total number of prison officers may present the impression that there are adequate numbers to serve the prison population, in effect there is a significant shortage of custodial staff at every location. The result is a prisoner/officer ratio that is unmanageable.
Accordingly, public perception of the Prison Service has steadily become unfavourable, with a concentration on allegations of prisoner abuse.
Reports from the strategic plan 2010-2015 of the GPS state that “the present systems and structures, while laudable in view of the numerous constraints, are inadequate to effectively respond to the rehabilitation needs of offenders, i.e. inculcating new mindsets and useful skills as well as confidence to take their place in society in a lawful manner. With these elements in place, their chances against re-offending will be increased.”
It was noted that the incentives within the GPS are limited, existing largely in Annual Awards Ceremonies where superior performance at the individual level is rewarded. The more fundamental forms of incentives, such as organisational and job autonomy, pay incentive schemes and simple recognition for a job well done, were largely non-existent, which also contribute to the low recruitment drive and corruption within the prison system.
Some of the programmes in the system that are valued to inmates are Merundoi-Behavior Change programme through drama, Anger Management, HIV AIDS Awareness and Behaviour Modification Programme; remedial literacy and numeracy, CXC, music and vocational training in the areas of tailoring, block-making, craft, carpentry, welding, catering and farming.
However, there is low percentage of staff and inmates being involved in such activities.
Offender training is constrained by ill equipped trade shops, inadequate space, and infrequency of training courses, insufficient trade instructors and custodial staff which inhibit the release of offenders to attend classes.
Of even more importance, the existing policy does not permit the participation of remands (although discretion is used sometimes based on declared interest). This latter policy does not appear to be relevant given the reality of the extensive length of incarceration for many remand offenders.
The strategic plan 2010-2015 of the GPS also states that equipment and furnishings were equally archaic, trade/workshops small, cramped and largely inoperable; no dining facilities exist at the Georgetown Prisons and “offenders eat literally on their feet!
In several cases, basic furnishings for prisoners were very inadequate (a critical shortage of beds/mattresses etc. result in several hammocks slung in the cells generating intense heat and further blocking light)”
Some of the threats underscored in the reports are: Geographic Location of the Georgetown Prisons: Absence of a buffer zone around the perimeter of the prison compound increases the security risk of external influences, presenting a number of related challenges.
The failure to comply with the city by-laws regarding the height of buildings constructed in the immediate vicinity of the prison poses additional threats. The drug trade leads to greater prison intake.
The high level of unemployment and poverty in the country creates a fertile environment for the criminal enterprise. The recent passing of new criminal legislation and its implications of potentially increasing the prison population as a result of a greater number of convictions has also been noted.
The increased successful prosecution of criminals who are very influential within the society; these individuals are able to use their considerable power and influence within and without the prison to create an unstable environment. Inability to attract suitably qualified staff from a depleted labour market.
A burgeoning unruly culture fosters a dangerous prison environment. At the socio-cultural dimension, proliferation of guns, drugs and technological advancements pose new threats with more violent and sophisticated crimes.
Poor perception of GPS staff by the public as a result of negative publicity in the media is not helping.