Former Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran believes the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the state of affairs of the prisons across the country is a useless exercise and posited that political willpower is really what is needed to reform the prison system.
In his weekly blog “The Conversation Tree”, Ramkarran explained that many reports were previously compiled, citing the same faults in the country’s prison system; however the government of the day never made any attempts to implement the said proposals.
He pointed out that the ongoing CoI into the prison upheaval will undoubtedly unearth similar findings.
Political willpower needed for prison reform
“Any further investigation into prison conditions by the inquiry headed by Justice Patterson, except the proximate causes for the recent events, will be a useless exercise. The problems have already been clearly and repeatedly defined,” he explained.
He outlined that in 2001 a comprehensive report by a British team on prison reform was made. It found overcrowding, violations of human rights, inadequate alternatives to incarceration, poor conditions for prisoners and staff, and minimal scope for rehabilitation.
In 2001, also, the Guyana Prison Service produced a ten-year Strategic Development Plan for 2001-2011 after reports, workshops, retreats, and visits.
In 2002, the Carter Center presented a report calling for a review of the criminal justice system including the system of imprisonment.
In 2002, the Kennard Commission of Inquiry into the February 2002 jailbreak concluded that it would not have occurred if the prisoners had been transferred to Mazaruni.
In 2004, the Report of the Disciplined Services Commission chaired by Justice Ian Chang made 28 recommendations for improvements to the prisons, including increasing staff, and increasing the capacity of Mazaruni to deal with dangerous prisoners.
In 2009, a 68-page report made by a team led by Lloyd Nickram, a Management Specialist in the Public Service Ministry, made much the same recommendations as the previous reports and identified the main cause of chronic overcrowding as the large number of remands and imprisonment for petty crimes.
He highlighted also that the Georgetown Prison Visiting Committee reports every year to the Minister, repeating the same litany of overcrowding and other problems.
Therefore Ramkarran concluded, the obstacle hindering prison reform is not the lack of knowledge of the problems within the system but the absence of political will and energy to implement the recommendations.
“The most important factor, however, is political will and governmental parsimony. At the best of times the prison and the judiciary are the two stepsisters who are starved when funds become scarce. They do not bring in votes at election time so they receive no political priority,” Ramkarran stated. In fact, he suggested that the ongoing Inquiry gather the previous reports, combine the recommendations and list them in order of priority – separating the short-term tasks from the long-term.
He explained that the short-term tasks that can bring immediate relief are the substantial reduction of prisoners by modern, non-custodial sentencing laws and policies for minor offences, a more creative policy with regard to bail and an annual review by the Director of Public Prosecutions of every case of a prisoner awaiting trial for more than two years.
Ramkarran recognised also that it may be found that some cases cannot proceed because witnesses are not available or for other reasons; however he pointed out that it makes no sense to keep those prisoners in prison.
“They can be freed or released on bail, even if on murder charges,” he stated. Also, he said the CoI should also consider recommending the appointment of a permanent, multi-agency task force on prison reform to drive the process of reform without which it will once again languish in bureaucratic inertia.
He noted too that abuses and irregularities are required to be investigated.
“It is wrong for the magistracy and judiciary to violate the human rights of citizens by sending them into inhuman conditions in prisons, and they should so declare. If this happens, the rapid pace of reform would surprise everyone,” he said. Moreover, Ramkarran explained that at remand time for prisoners at the end of each criminal assizes, the judiciary has the responsibility of examining the circumstances of prisoners and affording them or their lawyers an opportunity of being heard before they are further remanded to atrocious conditions.