September 30, 2016

The prison riot

The recent violent unrest at the Georgetown Prison, which resulted in the deaths of 17 prisoners and injuries to many, has not only caught the Government and security officials here by surprise, but it exposes their level of unpreparedness in dealing with such eventualities. The fact that so many persons lost their lives in such tragic circumstances demands an immediate review of the entire operations of correctional facilities across the country.
This virtual rebellion within the prison walls is the worst of its kind in Guyana’s history, and as expected many questions are being asked in relation to what may have led to those tragic events, or if they could have been avoided altogether.
Now that the Commission of Inquiry has been named, it is expected that such answers will be provided. While there have been some amount of details coming out as to what may have triggered the deadly riot, the nation, especially family members of the victims, deserves a comprehensive and truthful account of what really happened.
The nation expects a thorough investigation to be carried out by the Commission of Inquiry to get all the necessary details and make the necessary recommendations to avoid a recurrence.
Based on media reports, prisoners have raised some valid concerns which the authorities must seek to address urgently. For example, issues such as conditions of the prison, the quality of food provided, the treatment meted out by some prison officers and the length of time they spend waiting for their cases to be heard in the courts, must be addressed forthwith.
It is worthwhile to mention that most disturbances are not only due to bad behaviour of inmates, but due to disorganisation and lack of preparedness to deal with complex security issues. Disturbances also occur due to administrative and prison staff unwilling or incapable of responding to the concerns of the inmate population. In such cases, the likelihood of inmate unrest increases.
Furthermore, it is well known that Guyana’s prisons are overpopulated, understaffed and underfunded. The Camp Street Prison was built to accommodate 600 prisoners and is currently overcrowded with a population of approximately 984. Certainly, this situation needs to be remedied soon, or we run the risk of another riot happening.
That said, the question being asked is what can be done to prevent future disturbances among the prison population. The truth is, there will always be some amount of grievances among prisoners and they will find ways to protest, whether justifiably or not. What is important is the need for prison authorities to put effective systems in place to minimise the impact of such disturbances, both within and outside prison walls.
Last Thursday’s riot clearly shows that there is no proper plan in place to deal with a full-blown unrest at our prisons. On this basis, there is definitely need for more training for prison and other security officials in the area of emergency response planning and controlling riots in particular.
Further, the issue of corruption amongst prison staff has been an area of concern to many. The fact that 19 mobile phones, illegal drugs and other prohibited items were found in cells, shows that there is a high level of collusion between relatives of inmates and prison staff to pass banned items over to prisoners.
Perhaps the time has come for the authorities to explore how technology could be utilised in the country’s prisons to provide solutions to current and future problems. As witnessed in many countries, technology is a key component to ensuring the stability, safety and overall security of correctional facilities. Items such as drugs, metal objects and cell phones can effectively cause disruption or major disputes within the prison population.
For this reason, there is need to ensure that all prohibited items are confiscated before entering prison grounds. Technologies that are capable of scanning for weaponry, narcotics or explosives could be very useful and is a good start in providing prison staff with a first line of defence to maintain a controlled and secure environment.
The events over the past two days have been very unfortunate, especially considering the fact that lives have been lost in the process. The authorities must now look ahead and take all the necessary steps to ensure a situation such as this never recurs.

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