Would lawsuits be the ultimate path to custodial reform?
Once again the ranks have found themselves in a mire, or (more aptly put) hell fire due to the recent death in Blairmont Police Station lockups of Chandatt Yodha, a 49-year-old West Berbice fisherman.
The deceased had been arrested earlier that day, and detained on a charge of alleged mistreatment of his wife and unruly behaviour.
According to police report, the victim was alone in his cell and his underwear was used to bring about the untimely demise.
Premature deaths of individuals in police custody are without doubt tragic occurrences. From a moral stance, it is utterly heartbreaking to the family of the victim(s), and concomitantly heightens suspicion as to the conduct of police, operating in an already -existing climate of public mistrust.
To partially quote former President of South Africa, the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
The holding cell at any police station is only a temporary facility, but is nevertheless a link in the justice process and an integral part of the custodial chain.
Once placed in custody the picture changes dramatically, for the inmate/individual has a Constitutional right to be protected from harm, which also includes protection from harming one’s self.
Of a more unsettling note is the fact that the death did not occur in isolation, but as per the media is the latest in a series of suicides at police station and lock ups.
This problem has plagued the Police Force since 1980. See http://www.guyanaundersiege.com/Topical%20Affairs/Police%20Killings.htm
Suicide has been identified as the leading cause of death in jails and lock-ups.
By definition, someone who has committed suicide has served as the direct cause of his or her own death.
Consequently, one is left to wonder what measures had been instituted to prevent the fisherman from becoming yet another statistic to an already known fact—- that of recent suicides occurring at police stations and lock-ups.
Was there a Suicide Prevention Policy in place? What was the frequency of cell checks? What pieces of garments is an individual allowed to wear while in custody? What is known thus far about previous suicides in police lock-ups? What measures were taken to prevent the likelihood of same?
In the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices produced by the United States Department of State: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the executive summary for Guyana states that prison and jail conditions, particularly in police holding cells, were reportedly harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions.
Police are tasked with a responsibility in law, and a duty to make certain that prisoners in their custody are retained in a safe environment.
Furthermore, they must ensure and do that which is necessary to ensure that the environment and the place in which these prisoners are kept are safe at all times.
It is obvious that the police displayed negligence in executing custodial obligations, a situation which gives rise to the question as to who is legally responsible for suicide while in custody.
In March 2015, the then Commissioner of Police, Seelall Persaud, repeated and restated that at no time should anyone be put in the police lock-ups for any minor offence.
At the same time, he reminded his officers that any digression from that force’s policy could be regarded as a breach of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of the Guyana Police Force.
The Chief was resolute that this facet of the GPF policy should see strict obedience by every rank on duty: No person should be arrested and placed in the police lockups for any minor offence.
He advised that the applicable procedure should be that the person is arrested, briefly detained, and granted station bail while investigations into the reported offence are completed.
The Police Commissioner repeated this position when asked by reporters to comment on the abuse of members of the public by police ranks, and the excessive use of force.
One is left to wonder if such a directive still stands and is it practiced in the land. Perhaps, at this juncture a clearer explanation of “minor offence” is warranted from the perspective of both the ranks and the public.
In Act I, Scene 4, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marcellus the guard at Elsinore states: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Let me unequivocally state that “something is rotten in the Police Force of Guyana”, and in order for a better smell to be emitted, I am calling on the powers that be- Office of Professional Responsibility, and Police Complaints Authority- to seriously and thoroughly undertake a detailed investigation of this incident of death/suicide while in police custody.
Last year July, Bagatram Jailall, a sexagenarian of Meten-Meer-Zorg, accused of raping a 12-year-old girl was found hanging from the lockups window grill of the Leonora Police Station. While his crime may be of a more serious nature than the one currently under discussion, what is startlingly alarming and appalling, is that there were four other prisoners in the said cell at the time of death. It is blatantly obvious that due vigilance was not exercised.
Currently, there are far too many issues affecting the thrust of the Guyana Police Force to forge better relationships with members of the public.
The public is appalled not only at the fact that people are dying but moreover by the manner of their deaths.
No one believes any longer the excuses and explanations proffered. In 2009, the then Home Affairs Minister, Clement Rohee, briefed the inspectors and sergeants attached to the Guyana Police Force on their roles in the force.
The Minister stated that he saw the need for more attention to be paid to the supervision of the lockups in various police stations.
“Too many prisoners have been escaping from police custody, and too many incidents have been occurring at police lockups. This situation needs remedial action,” said the Minister.
A decade later and the problem still exists. Is there a force within the Force that hears but never cares or is police training seen as a means of earning and not learning?
Once again, I add my voice to that of so many others in calling for an immediate thorough review of policing in Guyana, leading to a redefining of the role of the Guyana Police Force. Adherents of the motto-To Protect and Serve- must not swerve, but carry out their duties in a professional manner for all to observe.
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