Weapons rife in Guyana prisons, T.O. lawyer says


Inquiry commissioner Selwyn Pieters
Inquiry commissioner Selwyn Pieters

As hearings continue into the deadly riots at the Georgetown Prisons, Toronto lawyer Selwyn Pieters who is representing prison and police officials says “the prison has to be sanitized of illegal weapons” held by inmates.

The Camp Street Prison disturbances from March 2 to 4 claimed the lives of 17 inmates, resulted in a fire in New Capital Bloc ‘A’ and left 30 inmates with minor injuries and one with major injuries.

While the inquiry takes a break, Pieters told The Camera the hearings are complex and evidence is still developing.

“A big challenge is the inquiry commenced hearing before all of the evidence was compiled including witness statements so that evidence is still being collected, statements are being prepared, analyses are being conducted, whilst the hearing proceeds. This stretches my working time into 16-hour days as I start working at 8 a.m. and sometimes I am dealing with issues until midnight to early morning.”

He added that the 20 minutes given for cross examination, “will pose impediments as cross-examination of some witnesses requires much more time than others.”

Some inmates and families of the deceased have retained lawyers, said Pieters, adding that he has seen threats to the lives of officers and their families as well as an increase in assaults among inmates.

“It is clear that the prison has to be sanitized of illegal weapons that are in the possession of inmates,” he said, adding that cellphones must be seized. In fact an inmate who took the stand at the hearings attempted to friend Pieters.

“In terms of human capacity I am concerned about officer safety as the compliment of staff to inmate is very thin and it has pushed management and prison officers to work continuously without adequate rest,” said the lawyer, a vocal human rights advocate in Toronto.

Asked to compare what he has seen in prisons in Canada and Guyana, Pieters said he has an expansive knowledge of jails in Canada as he is a former correctional / prison officer at the notorious Toronto Don Jail and that he has visited all of the Toronto area jails and other jails in the province as well as federal penitentiaries.

“In the Canadian prisons some of the issues that plague the Guyana Prison Service parallels. A clear example is smuggling of contraband.

“In correctional facilities, detainees whether on remand or serving sentences crave the availability of contraband such as cigarettes, lighters, rolling paper, marijuana, cocaine, hash, knives and cellular telephones. In Ontario, the availability of such items in jails is notorious.”

Contraband can be introduced into institutions through many methods and sources: Detainees coming from court or serving intermittent sentences; kitchen staff; correctional employees including prison officers; service providers; dropped into the exercise yard by drones or thrown into the exercise yard, said Pieters.

He added that “the same is true in the Guyana context and like Canada persons found smuggling are arrested and face criminal charges. In the case of employees dismissal proceedings are initiated.

“The demographics of the prison population at the Georgetown Prison are the same as in the Greater Toronto Area: young, Black, males.

“As in Guyana, the Ontario jails have an overcrowding issue with three or more persons in a cell designed for two.”

However, Pieters said prisons in Ontario and Canada do not have persons serving more than 25 years except those deemed dangerous offenders.

“We have a different dynamic from Guyana that has inmates serving insane sentences of 106 years, 82 years and the like. There are also inmates condemned to death in Guyana.”

A significant complaint by prisoners in Guyana, Pieters said, is a lengthy remand period that stretches into years.

In Canada accused persons are entitled to trials within a reasonable time under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and unreasonable delays by the state in moving a case forward can result in the staying of charges, he noted.

“In Guyana, the prison buildings in Georgetown are mostly old, in fact, wooden buildings that do not offer significant protection to officers. The inmates can break out of the wood buildings as seen on March 3 and 4.

“In Ontario, the structures are modern, large and highly mechanized. Correctional officers therefore monitor the inmates by way of CCTV cameras from their pod and do not have much physical interaction with inmates in their living units.”

Also, Guyana prisons have movable bunk beds with metal housing that inmates destroy, sharpen and make into improvised weapons. In Canada the beds are fixed to walls and cannot be moved by inmates.