Guyana jails a prisoner of inertia

Guyana’s five prisons are a long-standing, serious mess. That’s not news.

The nation’s penal system is long overdue for an overhaul but mostly due to political inertia by various governments, it does not happen. Unfortunately, that’s not news either.

What is news, making ugly headlines worldwide, was the recent Camp Street Prison riot in Georgetown that killed 17 prisoners and left several others wounded. And it’s not the first such incident.

This latest crisis has prompted the government and the Ministry of Home Affairs which manages the jails to appoint a Commission of Inquiry, including participation by Toronto lawyer and activist Selwyn Pieters who will represent the police and prison authorities.

Pieters’ participation gives reason for some hope as this commission – which follows a host of studies by both homegrown and international organizations – that at last someone will not only listen but act on the many recommendations for improvement put forward over many years.

The Toronto barrister is known for his advocacy, including doggedly pursuing cases to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. His eyes, ears and respected voice bode well to kickstart overdue action to deal with documented problems which include:

  • Overcrowding, including among high-risk prisoners;
  • Generally poor conditions for inmates and staff;
  • Abuses of basic human rights;
  • Minimal attention to rehabilitation.

One problem which seems relatively easy to address is the backlog of pre-trial detainees in the prisons as witnesses go into hiding and other delays beyond the control of the inmate occur causing prison stays of up to two years. Prisoners said after the riot that they wanted to be heard on the deplorably slow rate of bringing cases to court and their seemingly interminable pre-trial incarceration.

Another is far too many jail sentences for petty crimes which lumps those who may have just strayed in with hardened and sometimes dangerous criminals.

By far the worst problem is overcrowding. A 2014 report by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research said the system then held 1,967 prisoners at five sites with a total capacity of 1,522 inmates. The report predicted that would only get worse.

A hard choice awaits President David Granger if he and his government, which is still finding its feet, want to modernize and improve Guyana’s prisons.

Not the least of his challenges will be the cost of fixing the system, a government expenditure not likely to garner many supporters or votes. But moves like streamlining the bail system to drastically reduce incarcerated wait times and educating prison managers and staff to be more respectful of human rights won’t cripple the national budget.

Reducing overcrowding, which more than likely will mean expensive renovations or even a sixth prison and significantly improving conditions will mean major spending. Better rehabilitation programs probably fall somewhere in the middle as to cost.

But toughest of all will be finding the political will to bring this ignoble system into the 21st century. And that means spending the most valuable asset of all – political capital.

Let’s hope they are willing to make that investment.