Guyanese Canadians in the GTA are awaiting answers as a commission of inquiry begins probing two days of prison rioting and fires that left 17 dead and numerous inmates injured at Georgetown’s Camp Street Prisons.
The commission is to report by March 15. A recently completed commission of inquiry dealt with the assassination of renowned historian Dr. Walter Rodney outside the same prison.
Criminal lawyer Dhaman P. Kissoon of Kissoon and Associates told The Camera this is a “serious issue” and he will be watching for the inquiry’s findings. He is on record as saying, “We cannot separate the practice of law and community involvement.”
Conditions inside the crowded prison are believed to have sparked the riots. During last week’s riots, a prisoner said: “We want justice! We can’t be satisfied until we see progress. Dem got to keep dem word.”
Guyanese-Canadian Victor Yacoob told The Camera he concurs with President David Granger that this is the worst prison riot Guyana has witnessed and noted that on July 6, 2001, members of a U.K. Prison Reform Team recommended establishing a high level Commission on Criminal Justice to address deplorable problems within the prison system.
The team spent 18 months reviewing the Prison Service and found major problems to be overcrowding – the most immediate concern – poor conditions for prisoners and staff, infringement of basic human rights and minimal rehabilitation. The team found more than 80% of prisoners were serving time for minor offences with sentences of only one to three months.
Prof. Bobby Gossai, a Guyanese living in the U.S., said, “The government failed these prisoners – bad prison administration and incompetent prison officers. Criminal charges must be instituted against those responsible. A vote of no confidence against the Public Security Minister Kemraj Ramjattan is inevitable.”
Meanwhile, Superintendent of Prisons, Kevin Pilgrim offered a heart-felt apology and suggested a monthly search of the Georgetown prisons and seizure of illegal items caused inmates to riot. Nineteen cell phones were seized, in addition to a quantity of narcotics, he said.
As part of a training effort to improve the Guyana Prison Service officers will attend the annual Mock Prison Riots at the decommissioned West Virgina State Prison in Moundsville from May 1-4.
The three-man commission of inquiry is headed by former justice James Patterson, Merle Mendonca of Guyana Human Rights Association and former director of prisons Dale Erskine.
A total of 984 prisoners are incarcerated at the Camp Street Prisons which has a a capacity for only 600. The riots were in Capital A Block, which houses 68 inmates.
The Camera reached businessman and singer Omesh Singh who commented, “Guyana is going through a new birth and as such it’s going through teething pangs.
“Everyone is being affected by the economy – all races. I spoke to a number of businesspeople who told me they see no future in Guyana.”
He said, “The young people engage in petty crimes and then they move up to other serious crimes only to have the president (Granger) set them free. What kind of leadership is this?”
Another businessman, Victor Ram, called the situation “sad. They need to build a prison twice the size of the Georgetown prison and move it outside of the city.”