October 1, 2016

Prisoners’ lives matter

Dear Editor,
It is with great shock that I learnt of the death of some 17 prisoners, most on remand apparently, following riots at the Camp Street jail. My sympathy to the relatives of those who lost their lives. Prisoners’ lives matter!
This ongoing saga at our prison will leave a stain internationally on Guyana just at a time when we seem to have been successfully rebuilding the country’s image. What irks me however is the approach taken by the authorities in dealing with the protests by the prisoners.
This is not the first time there was an uprising at the prison and if only there was institutional memory about dealing with such protests, this unfortunate result would never have been.
Allow me to recall many many years ago, on the occasion of one of the anniversaries of the prison service there was an “uprising” of sorts which began late one Saturday. If my memory serves me right Oscar Clarke was then minister of home affairs.
The police was sent to surround the prison as fires raged within. Prime Minister Burnham was appraised of the situation and late that Saturday night summoned the then director of prisons whose name I think was Byron France. I was a young journalist at the Graphic back then and was assigned to cover the story.
Mrs Irvine, wife of then UG Vice Chancellor Dennis Irvine, was a counsellor at the prison and was among the team that met with Burnham late that Saturday evening. The decision taken was that a “negotiating team” would meet with the prisoners on Sunday. Heading the team was none other than President Arthur Chung, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces along with Mrs Irvine, Minister Gavin Kennard and a representative of the Guyana Council of Churches. Oscar Clarke was not on the team and as a journalist I found that strange.
On the mere announcement that a team was coming in to meet with them, the prisoners suspended their protests. The team went in on Sunday afternoon and the prisoners were assembled in a hall. Some roamed the prison yard….this was the welcoming committee (ringleaders) which included a man well up in age, of mixed race, who was serving a life sentence. I can see his wrinkled face until today. This very day West Indies was playing India in a match somewhere in the Caribbean, perhaps Jamaica.
West Indies was doing especially well and some of the prisoners wanted an update on the match. President Chung ordered that a radio be sent in so that the commentary could be heard. The prisoners delight was cut short for India, facing some hostile bowling, declared with three wickets still standing, and West Indies won the match.
President Chung and the team made on-the-spot decisions many of which pleased the protesting prisoners. I was amazed how happy these prisoners, who the previous night were rioting, had become having been paid a visit by the president and his team.
Now, I thought long and hard before including this part of the story in this letter. The editor will decide whether to include it. It was left out of the article I wrote back then. In seeking comments from the prisoners about their satisfaction with the meeting, the ring leader said to me something along these lines. “We trust these people. The government ain’t send no black or coolie people to talk to we. These are good people.” Mrs Irvine and the representative from the council of churches were white, Chung was Chinese and Kennard was a “redman”.
And they say Burnham didn’t have shots. This was a masterstroke on the part of the “Kabacka”.
So why was a negotiating team not sent in as soon as it was determined that the situation was escalating? As a former home affairs minister was Oscar Clarke contacted to offer advice about how to deal with this matter? Oscar Clarke might be too old to be Mayor of Georgetown but he might do well to serve on an independent commission of inquiry into this latest horror.
Involving the youth in the country’s affairs is great but we must balance youth with experience and institutional memory.

Wesley Kirton

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