– US correctional experts
Most of the illegal articles found in the prison are taken in by staff members.
This is the view of two retired correctional officers from the United States of America, who are winding down a training programme for prison officers on ethical dilemmas.
The programme comes at a time when local prison officials have been increasingly unearthing
contraband substances within the prison, including drugs and weapons.
In some cases, these items are smuggled in by the prisoners themselves, while the authorities have caught staff members trying to take in drugs in some of the most ingenuous ways.
Carlyle Holder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Florida-based Correctional Management and Communications Group, has 27 years experience in the United States correctional system, including a top post at the country’s largest federal prison before his retirement in January this year.
His colleague, Robert Matthews, who is also retired, spent 20 years in the US federal prison system, including stints at Leavenworth, and the US Penitentiary in Atlanta.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper yesterday, the two retired prison experts said that their visit to Guyana stems from discussions with Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine, during which their work in other Caribbean countries, such as St. Lucia, was highlighted.
“They were having a lot of issues with staff bringing in stuff for the inmates and things like that. Mr. Erskine took it to his ministry, and it was decided that they wanted us to come and do the same here,” said Holder, who is Trinidadian by birth.
Both experts have indicated that they are impressed with the staff of the local prison system, who they said were very interested in improving the system and transforming it to a more progressive operation.
They both said that Guyana’s prison situation is not unique, and they will not be trying to impose anything from the system they are familiar with, but rather will craft programmes that are better suited to Guyana’s criminal justice system.
“We have the same problems like you have. We teach ethics in the United States and we have programmes like this for staff in the federal prison system on a regular basis. At least once a year they go through mandatory ethics training,” Holder explained.
He said that, firstly, prison officers must be aware of the ethics problem, so that they will be better able to deal with it.
“What it really boils down to is doing the right thing,” he added.
There are reports that a local prisoner could get almost anything illegal within the facility.
These illegal items are either smuggled in through the gate, although the administration has installed an x-ray scanner, or it is thrown over the prison walls, such as with the case of a firearm recently.
The latter has prompted the administration to mount guards around the main prison in Georgetown to deter this kind of activity.
Recently, an officer was caught trying to smuggle marijuana into the prison.
Holder pointed out that although some prison officers are guilty of facilitating the entry of contraband goods into the prison, this represents a small percentage of the staff.
“What happens is the good people look the other way, and what we have to get them to do is not look the other way, but make reports. Let’s get rid of the few bad apples that make the agency appear to be corrupted with a lot of dirty staff. This training will probably remove some of that wall of silence, so that people will realize that if you look the other way, you are just as guilty as the person that’s doing it,” he said.
He described contraband items as things that should not be in the prison, including drugs and cell phones.
“Contraband can be anything that is unauthorized. In our business, if you give an inmate a stick of gum and it is not authorized, it’s the beginning of something. Although it’s small and may have no significance in what we do, once you give him that one illegal piece, it could move from there to a candy, then to drugs, and then a cell phone,” the prison expert explained.
Unlike in the United States of America, prisoners in Guyana get more opportunities to interact with the public whenever they are on outdoor duties.
The prison experts agreed that this increases the opportunities for prohibited items to be smuggled into the facility.
According to Robert Matthews, who was also a United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, most of the prisoners in the United States sometimes don’t even know the state in which they are incarcerated; while, in Guyana, where the community is much smaller, it is easier for prisoners to make contact with the outside world.
“In my experience, inmates don’t bring in a lot of contraband. You may have rare instances because you have a lot more systems in place, like search procedures before they come in. Most of the contraband is brought in by staff,” Holder stated.
He said that in the United States inmates are sometime strip searched.
However, there is the likelihood of a ‘dirty’ staff who may allow an inmate to pass in with illegal items.
He said that it is easier to detect inmates who are into smuggling in the prison than staff members.
This, he said, is an occurrence all over the Caribbean.
In an invited comment, acting Director of Prisons, Poshanand Tahal, told this newspaper that the prison administration is aware of some staff involvement in the smuggling of illegal items into the prison. Searches are being intensified in keeping with the rules.
With regards to the throwing of illegal items over the prison walls, Tahal said that the prison is fortunate to have ranks from the Guyana Police Force and the GDF stationed at strategic points around the main prison in Georgetown.
However, according to Tahal, while the Georgetown Prison is equipped with a scanner, it can only detect illegal objects in a bag.
He said that the culprits are now moving in stuff by body cavities (strapping items to the body) which would render the scanner useless, since it is not designed for that purpose.
“A lot of people would what we call, ‘pouch things,’ like cigarettes and drugs, on their persons. There is a large percentage of pouching,” Tahal said.
He explained that some wardens come from the same society like some of the inmates, which would sometimes compromise their professionalism.
He pointed out that, in some cases, inmates would threaten wardens to force them to do their bidding.
“Out of fear, some of the wardens would be coerced into smuggling illegal items, especially for high profile prisoners,” the acting Director told this newspaper.
Only recently, a warden was transferred to another location after he informed the prison authorities about threats made to him by a prisoner.
Tahal agreed with the US experts that the prevalence of cellular phones in the prisons is a growing cause for concern.
“These prisoners study the yard, and with things like cell phones, they know when their accomplices can throw something over the wall or when a facilitating officer is on duty to receive the illegal items from a person on the outside,” Tahal contended.
“Cell phones are perhaps the most prevalent issue facing us as a profession. Because it intimidates witnesses,” Holder said, pointing out that so worrying is the scenario that the issue made the front page of a leading US daily recently.
The threat of illegal weapons entering the prison is also very much alive.
In 2002, prisoners who were armed with guns killed a warden and severely wounded another in one of Guyana’s most daring and violent jailbreaks.
Tahal, however, assured that the intensity of the searches within the prison is very high.
According to Holder, most of the prisons around the world are looking at staff training more intensely as a means of moving away from the old system, which just entailed locking up offenders, to rehabilitation, which is designed to enable inmates to be reintegrated into the wider society.
“You have to move them (staff) from one way of thinking to the other. For some of them, maybe beating up an inmate may have been okay 20 years ago, but today that’s not, and you could end up in jail, so you have to let them know this. I applaud the leadership of the Guyana Prison Service for having the foresight to train their staff,” Holder commented.
Both experts were firm in their view that remuneration should not be used as an excuse for wardens to get involved in illegal activities.
They both suggested that if a warden wanted to use the argument of low remuneration to justify his/her illegal actions, then that person should find another job, since, according to them, being a prison warden is a public service, and public servants all around the world are among the lowest paid employees in a country.
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