The Camp St Prison and reform

THE shocking news of 17 inmates at the Camp Street Prison burnt to death while rioting on Thursday has once again raised the question of security at the facility; its location in the heart of Guyana’s capital and the conditions that exist within its walls.
There can be no denying that the Camp Street Prison- the birthplace of the 2002-08 prison escapee-led violence has been of much concern to citizens over the years and as we have said in this column before, society has a responsibility to contribute in influencing a national conversation on the state of our prison system and what we desire of it; and serious conversation must start now.
The prison has been and will continue to be an institution in society. Recognising that the prison encompasses people who are citizens, it must not only be looked at as a penal system, but a reformist institution that prepares the incarcerated for re-integration into society. Repeated reports of unrest and complaints of poor conditions must be of concern and tackled with the same commitment with which other issues are handled in the wider society.
The walls of the prisons are bursting at their seams, given the larger population than what they were originally designed for. This is in itself a violation of prisoners’ rights and in some society there would be outcries to have this corrected. The correct disgust for criminal actions must not translate to violation of human rights which prisoners too are guaranteed.
Addressing reform will require reviewing sentencing based on the type of crime. Innovative ways can be examined to dispense with petty crimes such as stealing a bicycle, wherein justice can be dispensed through community service in a controlled environment. Sentencing for marijuana should also be examined as a matter of priority, including decriminalisation of a certain amount for medical reasons.
President Granger’s pardon to some young men who had committed non-violent offences, must be considered a good intent to kick-start major prison reform. The prison population can be placed in several different groups, since the one-size-fits-all system is a proven failure. Even as inmates are taught CXC and basic technical education, such can be complemented with programmes such as an effective parole system designed to prepare prisoners for re-integration and reducing the congestion that presently exists.
Every incarcerated individual, outside of those on death row or life imprisonment, is expected to re-integrate into society. Taking cognisance of this reality requires a reform structure that is deep, focused and incisive with consideration for the varied groups. It should be considered that prison life must bring with it new opportunities or a second chance to pursue a life of legitimacy and productivity through acquisition of knowledge and development of appropriate lifeskills.
In the wider society, efforts can also be made to sensitise the citizenry to the various crimes and corresponding penalties via roadway signs, etc., which play a role in deterring crime. Our prison system has remained in an era the world has moved beyond. For instance, Camp Street, which is the major prison, is not only overcrowded, but the time is past where for its original purpose it should be outside of Georgetown that is not only congested, but also displaying signs of crises in urban planning. When this prison was built it was situated on the periphery of the town. And given that the prison system is being managed at a tidy sum to the taxpayers, attention ought to be paid to value for money. Applying this principle can see a system put in place targeting reduction in recurring offenders by separating them from the hardened criminals who can influence them into a life of crime. Prison reform is possible in the presence of will and commitment, but such must also be seen as a matter of necessity to bring Guyana into the 21st century.

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