GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Sunday March 6, 2016 – After three days of protests by prisoners at Guyana’s main jail – which resulted in the deaths of 17 inmates –, and a meeting between prisoners and government ministers, agreement has been reached on steps to improve conditions at the penal institution.
Inmates at the Camp Street Prison will be allowed to call their families more regularly, the quality of their meals will be improved, and efforts will be made to reduce periods of remand.
That was announced by Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan at a press conference on Friday after he and Minister of State Joseph Harmon met with an 18-man delegation from the prison.
The latest period of unrest began last Wednesday, after a search uncovered cellphones and drugs. Prisoners set nine fires which were extinguished before getting out of control, but the disturbance was reignited the following morning, as some prisoners were being moved from one part of the jail to another. They set a fire that damaged part of the compound and resulted in 16 of them perishing there and a 17th passing away at the hospital after suffering burns to most of his body. Several other prisoners were also injured.
In another round of protests early on Friday, prisoners set fire to another section of the prison but that was quickly extinguished. They also kicked out the walls of a wooden section of the jail and security forces were called in as they ran through the prison. Several prison officers and inmates were injured and treated at hospital.
Officer in Charge of the prison, Kevin Pilgrim, confirmed that following the meeting between the ministers and the prisoners, some calm was restored at the prison. He said the damaged sections of the prison were being repaired.
Harmon also reporters after the meeting: “I think we have sort of a gentleman’s agreement on both sides and we are going to try to keep our end of the bargain and they are going to keep theirs.”
Among the concerns expressed by the inmates were: the long time many of them were on remand; only being able to call their loved ones twice a week; and the poor quality of meals.
Ramjattan and Harmon said those matters would be addressed immediately.
According to Ramjattan, telephone calls will be increased to three per week, with the possibility of being increased to four or five when more telephone lines are installed at the prison, and prison authorities have been reminded that meals are to be of a sufficient good quality and in conformity with the Standard Operating Procedures of the prison system.
Harmon added: “What we can say to the inmates, is that their concerns with respect to the long periods of incarceration on remand will be addressed, and addressed very quickly, by the judiciary and the administration.”
To begin easing the overcrowding at the prison which was built to cater for 600 but now houses about 984 inmates, 47 young offenders were removed from the Camp Street Prison and taken to the Timehri Prison.
Ramjattan also announced that Deputy Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels has been sent on leave for six weeks, but insisted that the decision was in no way an indictment on him. He explained that several complaints were filed by prisoners against him and it was best for him to proceed on the leave owed to him at this time.
A Commission of Inquiry, led by retired judge James Patterson and including Merle Mendonca and former Director of the Guyana Prison Service, Dale Erskine, has been launched to look into the circumstances that led to the disturbances at the prison, report the findings and conclusions to the Minister of Public Security and make recommendations on any action that should be taken to avoid a recurrence.
One of the aims of the Commission will be to determine whether the deaths of the 17 prisoners was a result of the negligence, abandonment of duty, disregard of instructions, or inaction of prison officers.
Meantime, the chief of the Camp Street prison has apologized for what transpired at the jail.
“It is my mandate to preserve the lives of every inmate and the officers who supervise those inmates . . . I am sorry,” Pilgrim said, adding that it was an emotional time for both the prisoners and officers.
It was also announced at Friday’s press conference that the families of the deceased prisoners would be offered support to offset funeral expenses.