There is much truth in a statement made by Britain’s first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose Government was facing a tumultuous task responding and calming fiery protests, revolts against the Executive and its policies, and a spike in crime as a result of the declining economic situation back in the 1970s.
Thatcher had declared that she “will not negotiate with criminals or thugs” when confronted with a specific scenario in Northern Ireland.
But her posture on dealing with crime and criminality, prisoners and law breakers in general was consistent especially after the direct attack on her life by the IRA terrorist movement. Even after this episode, she declared “I will not negotiate with terrorists”.
Guyanese politicians have a lot to learn from the politics of World Leaders like Thatcher. They must understand that every action and posture adopted in the public eyes are likely to have both positive and negative spin-off effects.
On Friday, State Minister Joseph Harmon and Vice President with responsibility for Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan led a team of officials to meet with the riotous prisoners who had set fire to the prison under the guise that they needed better living conditions and other demands met before calm could be restored.
Surprisingly, the ministers appeared satisfied with the outcome of the meeting as the emboldened prisoners agreed to remain calm and end the riot.
In exchange, the ministers related to the media that they agreed to improve the living conditions at the prisons, increase the amount of telephone calls that they are allowed, relook at the detention period at the institution, the quality of their food, and a series of other things.
This “gentleman’s agreement” as one minister described it was brokered despite the President’s announcement that he was establishing a Commission of Inquiry to probe the circumstances which led to the riot and fire at the Prison and the response of the relevant authorities following the loss of life.
Surely, the ministers know that they have legitimised both the riot and fire which occurred at the Prisons by negotiating with hardened criminals’ terms to end the riot.
The simple act of Government ministers becoming so integrally involved in this issue is worrying. The ministers should have advised the Head of the Joint Services Mark Phillips, Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud and other independent Human Rights individuals to meet the prisoners and listen to their concerns.
Again, the wrong signal was sent and there can be no doubt that in future, the prisoners will believe that in order to get their way in jail, they must riot and cause pandemonium. The Government is surely going to respond and they will have another opportunity to negotiate.
Other prisoners at various locations took note of the progress made by the criminals at Camp Street even before the CoI got working. Who knows what else the prisoners will ask for or riot about? Did the Government consider that there could have been a deliberate plot on the part of some of the prisoners to break out of the jail and that the riot and fire was just a diversionary tactic employed which unfortunately ended with the loss of life?
Also, the Government must bear full responsibility for the boldness demonstrated by the criminals. From day one President Granger has had a fascination with those criminals at the prisons. He is the only President in history of this country that has pardoned close to 100 convicted prisoners, some of whom have broken the law again after being released.
The psychological impact of that move led to a reasonable expectation by the prisoners that the President and his Government would be more sympathetic to them and they were willing to test it first with the fire and riot. They were right!
The truth is the Government should have stayed out of the matter and should have held the security forces responsible for their actions and inactions in dealing with the matter. It was an operational exercise and the ministers should have only given policy directives. The Government should have condemned the riot immediately while standing on the side of the law.
If the Inquiry proved that there were human rights violations and inhumane conditions at the prisons and the authorities there were culpable, then they should have taken the necessary corrective and punitive actions as part of wider prison reforms proposal which must be rooted in the law.
It is sad that the Government in a haste to score political points and demonstrate that it has a human face would have made the overtures that they did.
There are many lessons to be learnt but the Government has started a dangerous precedent of negotiating with criminals. Now, there are reports of a promise made to the families of those who died to give them permanent assistance?
Somebody is going mad…