The recent destruction of the Camp Street Prison, presumably by riotous inmates, makes it imperative that Guyana’s political directorate, in collaboration with the civilian authorities, move, as a matter of urgency, to reexamine the existing approach to crime and punishment. Most important is the need for an urgent examination of the root causes of crime prior to identifying solutions to address them. Our collective conditioning on these matters, which finds us putting the cart before the horse, has made us ill equipped to effectively deal with the crime situation in the country. Too often, the authorities – political and civil – have demonstrated an absence of awareness of how these matters evolve and what is required to deal with the challenges they pose, consistent with progressive thinking on these social/economic related problems.
In Guyana, we are predisposed to treat our imprisoned population as pariahs/social outcasts. On the other hand we celebrate and glorify our ‘achievers’. Even when those so called achievements are made possible from the proceeds of crime and corruption we unhesitatingly take ownership of these persons, while at the same time we refuse to accept that law-breakers, whoever they are, are products of our society and can be found in every stratum of the society. This phenomenon is reflected in Guyana’s prison population, since the big time gangsters with their inexhaustible supply of money and who enjoy police and other forms of protection, are often not prosecuted and don’t find themselves in jail. It is the crimes done by the poor and powerless that result in jail time and dominate the headlines of the news media. This is the reality in Guyana today. It is this reluctance to appreciate and address this grave contradiction in the society that makes it easy for policy-makers not to deliver lasting solutions to this important social problem.
Our policy-makers advocate measures and allocate resources that are not in keeping with what is required for dealing with the problem. To correct this situation we need, as I have alluded to above, a paradigm shift, both in our thinking and practice. While reforms of the prison system and sensible judicial sentencing policy are necessary, more important is for us as a nation to take collective responsibility for what takes place in our society, be it good or bad. If we do so we are likely to find consensus for a social contract that forces policy-makers to be more sensitive to the needs of the ‘ordinary’ citizens and the under-privileged in the society.
The unemployment and under-employment situation in the country is unacceptable. Those most affected are located in the country’s youth population. Our youth today are in a large way, products of the global digital reality in an ever smaller world, with its temptations of glitter. We have to recognize also that in a situation of very high cost of living, the wages and salaries paid to the majority of the work force, while somewhat improved from what they were a few years ago, are still grossly inadequate. Our education system since the colonial days has underperformed relative to the need for it to produce citizens with the necessary transformative skills to effectively exploit our vast natural resources.
These are not recent challenges. They represent our collective failure for the last 50 or more years. Given the amount of wealth being stolen annually by gold smugglers and other citizens engaged in acts of corruption, bad decisions in implementing economic programmes and the use of tremendous resources to prop up ailing industries, the argument of resource limitation begs the question. The nation needs to commit to a welfare society where human resource is our highest priority. I am convinced that until we are able to find employment for our youths coming out of schools and other educational institutions we are unlikely to liberate them from crime and social degradation.
These are some of the challenges posed by the recent riot in the Camp Street Prison. In light of the potential wealth of the country there is no convincing reason why a student should end school without some advance knowledge of where he or she will be employed. It is time we put an end to this travesty against our youths. I am keenly aware that when it comes to crime, like most things, there is no one reason or solution for everything. My emphasis here, however, is to reduce the flow of would be offenders who are products of our unrealistic economic and social arrangements in the society.
I end by saying, that, try as they might, the authorities will be unable to disprove my contention that nowhere among the 1000 plus prisoners who were housed in the burnt Camp Street jail, can be found one who was from one of the rich and powerful families in Guyana.