-Minister Benn says recent death of inmates ‘regrettable’
-140 prisoners infected with COVID-19, 80 transferred to Madewini
By Navendra Seoraj
JUST days after an unrest which resulted in the death of two prisoners, Minister of Home Affairs, Robeson Benn, has announced that government will be building a new, modern detention facility to house inmates of the Lusignan Prison, which has been overrun and crowded since the Camp Street Prison fires.
In October 2017, Guyana was advised that the Lusignan Prison should be closed down without delay. This advice came from the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
The group had issued a raft of recommendations addressing the state of the country’s penal system, stating that steps should be taken to improve the infrastructure and hygienic conditions within prisons, bringing them within international standards.
The Lusignan Prison had been overrun since the destruction of a large part of the 133-year-old Camp Street prison in 2017- a little over a year after 17 prisoners were killed in a fire at the same facility.
The situation at Lusignan was worsened earlier this year, following a fire which destroyed one of the facility’s main buildings which housed an administrative office, kitchen and facilities for approximately 185 to 190 prisoners.
Authorities had established makeshift holding bays in the compound of the facility, but the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had exacerbated the situation, causing prisoners to become uneasy and most recently leading to an unrest which resulted in the death of two prisoners and the injury of five others.
In responding to questions from Opposition Member of Parliament, Geeta Chandan-Edmond on the issue at Lusignan, Minister Benn said the People’s Progressive
Party/Civic (PPP/C), while in opposition, had recognised the conditions at Lusignan and had concluded that there was severe congestion.
“We are working to improve conditions to allow for better separation among prisoners,” said Benn, adding that some 570 prisoners were lying closely together when the PPP/C first inspected the facility after being sworn into government in August.
The minister told the National Assembly that he visited the prison and identified those problems and had already started initiating plans for the expansion and separation of prisoners to reduce congestion, but those plans were stymied by COVID-19.
The issue of congestion and other underlying concerns caused a stir at the Lusignan prison on Saturday, said Minister Benn. Prior to the unrest, it was reported that two prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19.
He said prisoners had started refusing their meals since September 18, but the situation escalated on Saturday following his visit to the facility. Minister Benn was accompanied by Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony.
“We thought conditions would have settled on Saturday, as they were asking to see the minister…Frank and I tried to get the prisoners to settle down, and even when we got there, we were welcomed on entering.
“We spoke with the prisoners in bay two and the discussions revolved around the overarching issues related to court hearings and so on, then we moved to bay one where the discussions degenerated to individual issues,” said Minister Benn.
He said the discussions were going good until prisoners in other holding bays became agitated and started throwing missiles.
In further recounting what occurred, Minister Benn said: “They got unruly and we exited the prison…on exiting the prison, they continued throwing inside and outside and we decided to leave because they were coming over the prison gate and people had to duck for cover.
“We were aware that the prison guards in the restricted part had to rush out of there and slam shut the main gates; there were bricks and stuff being thrown at them …the understanding I have so far is that the prison guards opened the tents and went to the towers, and while being under attack, shots were fired.”
Seven prisoners were injured as a result, but two of those persons died in the compound. Three of the remaining five were detained at Lusignan, while the others were treated at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC).
“The loss of life is regrettable and sad, but I would have to say that my understanding is that the final parameter was under attack and they took necessary measures to ensure we do not have what occurred in the past (prison breaks),” said Minister Benn.
Chandan-Edmond pressed Benn for more answers, but the minister said those questions will be answered once a comprehensive review is done.
Both Chandan-Edmond and her colleague on the opposing side of the National Assembly, Nicolette Henry, further questioned the minister on what measures are in place to ensure the safety of prisoners amidst COVID-19.
To this, he replied that 140 prisoners have tested positive for the disease, but 80 persons were transported under ‘tight’ security to a secure area at Madewini.
To cater for the remaining prisoners and to further promote social distancing, the minister said authorities are expanding an area to the east of the facility. This area, he said, will be equipped with beds and tents.
“I anticipate by tomorrow (today) we will be in a better position to move some of those prisoners over to that area,” said Minister Benn.
Authorities have also been promoting social distancing at other detention facilities and have also been providing those facilities with masks, washing materials and sanitisers.
Health authorities have so far tested 12,394 persons, with 9,823 being negative, and 2,402 positive. Some 133 of those cases were recorded within the past 24 hours.
Of the total positive cases, 1,359 persons have recovered, and 69 have lost their lives. The remaining cases include 102 persons in institutional isolation, 860 in home isolation, and 16 in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU).