The prison unrest

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By Akola Thompson

IN THE wake of the recent prison unrests and fires, many a people turned critic, preacher, psychologist and political orator.It was amusing to see, if not surprising; because being a people who seem to thrive on the most popular tragedies, I know it will be mere days or weeks before these minds are turned to more pressing matters. It is unfortunate that this will happen, especially since I do believe that people need to continue harping on the urgent need to look at the incarceration rate for petty and non-violent criminals and the prisons’ general environment and rights.

When I first heard of the fires set at the Camp Street prison, my first thought was where are the prisoners even getting things to start a fire. When I read that the uprisings were in protest for confiscated makeshift weapons, drugs and cellular phones, I again wondered where the prisoners were getting these things.

The simple answer is usually the right one. Let us not be disillusioned and believe these ingenious prisoners (while there might be some) have devised ways to sneak contraband through a supposedly secure institution.

Too much focus, I believe — from what I observed, heard and read — was being given to the need for a more secure prison; one which ideally should be placed outside of central Georgetown. While I do agree that we need a more secure and isolated prison, I do not believe that solutions should be looked at in isolation, especially since there are more important issues to be dealt with. These issues include, but are certainly not limited to, remand prisoners whose cases are yet to be heard; the need for community service or halfway houses for first-time non-violent prisoners, and the need for basic human rights. There is also the urgent need to raise the salaries of those who spend most of their time with these prisoners.

I honestly believe that magistrates have too much unchecked power, with little in the way of mitigating checks and balances; and it seems as if Guyana is full of magistrates without moral compasses, who would look at a non-violent first offender and place that person in prison.

I know of a young man who has been locked away for close to two years. I do not know if this man is guilty of the crime (stealing) for which he has been imprisoned, but from all indications, he is not. He has not ever had his case heard, and will most likely spend several more years in the facility before it is heard. He is now 21 years old.

Instead of placing non-violent first offenders in jail, it is high time that alterative measures be practised, such as community service or even halfway houses for those who may have served considerable time in prison and are now eligible to be released. From the recent figures given in the budget for the prison system, housing and feeding prisoners is costly, so let’s not use costly prison spaces unnecessarily.

I like to use the examples of the marijuana and wandering debates. Despite being acknowledged that certain laws need to be reviewed, they still remain, and continue to thrive, claiming and holding their victims captive in the filth that is the Camp Street jail.

Now, while this recent outburst and deaths will be a stain on our memory for a few more days, I urge one to not forget the various factors which contribute to such uprisings, mainly the loss of human rights.

I have never been a visitor to the prisons, thankfully; but from the horror stories I have heard — of starvations and illnesses caused by the dirty surroundings, it is no place for human residence. There are also too many reports of unwarranted beatings and punishments meted out by officers. Too many bad weeds have been allowed to remain as police officers over the years, and it is high time that they are identified and pulled out.

Prison officers, be they corrupt or not, must have more focus placed on them. It is no secret that they are underpaid and overworked; and spending days with criminals, it is no surprise that many feel the need to do ‘side hustles.’

If politicians can give themselves better payment so as not to be slaves to corruption, then I believe that at least the policemen deserve the same, as they, too, are prone to corruption.

Still on the issue of officers, the unfortunate incidents have displayed how unprepared they are to deal with such security threats. This includes the Fire Service, which often arrives on the scene of a fire without water. Thankfully, that did not happen this time.

As I close, I feel the need to urge the opposition to stop laying every misfortune at the feet of the ten-month-old coalition government in an effort to gain cheap political points, since these conditions thrived and festered under them. Further, the coalition government must be commended for its action of sitting down to speak with representatives of the prisoners, and making promises, as all politicians seem to do in times of great tragedy. Unlike their promises to review wandering and marijuana laws, however, which see many youths and otherwise law-abiding citizens being sentenced to jail, I do hope that these promises materialize sooner, rather than later.