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The Georgetown prison fire: A failure and opportunity for good governance through public accountability

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Burke is the president of the Caribbean Guyana Institute for Democracy (CGID)

Last week swift public accountability reinforced good governance in Trinidad & Tobago. Ms. Marlene McDonald was sworn in as Minister of Public Utilities on June 30. Three days later Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley fired her for countenancing a reputed member of the criminal underworld to attend her swearing in ceremony. Ms. McDonald introduced the gentleman, who is on the radar of security forces, to President Anthony Carmona with whom they were photographed. This public outrage forced the prime minister to hold his minister accountable. Her firing restored public confidence in the government. Accountability is the essence of good governance. Good governance is the foundation of a democratic society.

In March 2016, inmates at the Georgetown Prison, Guyana’s main jail, rioted and burnt down part of the facility. 17 inmates were killed and several prison officers and prisoners were injured. The Commission of Inquiry (COI) which investigated this fiasco made several recommendations. Minister of National Security, Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan, said implementation of the reforms was unaffordable. Director of Prisons, Mr. Gladwin Samuels posited that money was a major challenge to implementing the major COI recommendations.

Last Sunday, July 9, 2017 the prisoners struck again. They rioted, shot several guards and burnt down the entire Georgetown Prison. A prison officer was shot and killed. Several of his colleagues remain critical in hospital. Make no mistake, unaffordability to implement the COI reforms led to the July 9 national tragedy that has left the Granger administration wanting.

We must laud our security forces. They commendably evacuated over 1000 prisoners safely and protected the lives of dozens of prison officials. In one year, the government’s only significant achievement in prison reform is a brilliant evacuation that was expertly executed. Meanwhile, its vacillation and negligence allowed prisoners to hatch a more viable conspiracy to escape successfully, access weapons and incendiary devices that ultimately led to the prison’s destruction. It is inexplicable how such comprehensive planning went undetected. The systemic failures, negligence, absence of prison intelligence gathering and mismanagement evince poor leadership of our prison service and national security.

All of us, as stake holders, must work to find solutions to the current economic and social challenges, and help mold and develop a modern country for new generations of Guyanese to inherit.

The most dangerous inmates who masterminded the riot escaped. Authorities have given different numbers of escapees. Every two days the number changes and the names of some escapees are unknown. Obviously, there is an improper inmate registration system, which must be addressed by the reform project. Most of the prisoners were evacuated to the Lusignan Prison, where they have been video-taped roving the vast compound unrestrained, killing animals to cook, bathing openly etc. This lawlessness amplifies Mr. Samuels’ contention of lack of funding and the government’s laxity and unpreparedness for exigent circumstances.

The optics of prisoners casually roaming a compound with cutlasses and knives and killing animals is a traumatizing image. The inmates are currently housed in a swampy compound. They are exposed to elements of the environment, and to unsanitary conditions that are hazardous to public health. This development is repugnant to international human rights norms.

Moreover, rushing magistrates into that compound to convene a haphazard satellite bail court, and releasing over 300 prisoners willy nilly, seems reckless. It further complicates the balance of human rights against public safety. Moreover, if there is a judicial basis to release a prisoner who is charged with a petty crime after the fire, what was the judicial basis for remanding them to prison before the fire? Furthermore, there must be transparency. The police has an obligation to inform the public of the nature of the charges against those who have been released, to assuage public safety concerns.

Opposition leader, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, has issued sanctimonious condemnations of the government’s handling of the matter. However, his party, the PPP, was in government for 23 years. He was President of Guyana for 12 years; from 1999 – 2011. What did he do to solve this problem? In fact he ostensibly used a previous jail break to manufacture a national security crisis to blame his political opposition and slaughter hundreds of innocent, young black men. His party left this 100-year-old, antiquated, wooden facility to deteriorate to a national security risk, which they passed on to the Granger administration. Mr. Jagdeo therefore has no integrity to lecture us on this issue. If he were smart, he would just sit down.

The minister of national security and director of prisons must account to the nation for a prison in which inmates accessed guns, knives and cutlasses and gravely endangered the lives of prison officer. Why didn’t the government, recognizing that the 2016 riot caused a national emergency situation, mobilize the necessary resources from the international community to fast-track the implementation of the COI recommendations? How did the prisoners acquire weapons and incendiary devices? How were the female guards overpowered? Was there a combination of male and female guards serving meals? How were the prisoners able to move from their cell to different parts of the compound to set simultaneous fires? How could prisoners escape when there were mobile police patrol units around the outer perimeter of the prison? What kind of prisoner registration system is in place? How can missing inmates’ names and identification numbers be not known?

Public safety is the most inviolable responsibility of a government. The minister of national security has the unpleasant record of two prison riots, 18 deaths and the complete destruction of the Georgetown Prison on his watch. He must answer these and other questions to assure public confidence in the government. As the government contemplates solutions for this crisis, its actions must exude transparency , accountability and good governance. Part of the solution must include construction of a modern prison facility outside of the commercial district of Georgetown. The government has the ability to mobilize the resources for such a project. It requires political will, courage and forward thinking on the part of this administration.

Guyana is a beautiful country. It is rich in vastly untapped natural resources. All of us, as stake holders, must work to find solutions to the current economic and social challenges, and help mold and develop a modern country for new generations of Guyanese to inherit.

Updated 3:05 am, July 10, 2018
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