IN the wake of the recent jailbreak, there is understandably much debate over what went wrong at Camp Street. On one hand, there has been the usual partisan finger-pointing by the opposition PPP and its allies in the Private Sector Commission. On the other hand, the Public Security Minister and the President have defended the government against charges of culpability. The minister blamed the slow implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into the last prison riot on the government’s inability to come up with the necessary resources. He specifically cited government’s huge subsidy to the sugar industry—a clear and perhaps apt response to the PPP. The President, for his part, has absolved the minister from any blame for the jailbreak.
When all is said and done, the government of the day has to take responsibility for what happened—they are in charge. The current rulers must take responsibility, even if blame lies elsewhere. But we should be less interested in blame and more concerned with the lessons learned and how to use those to craft a clear strategy to minimise the possibility of a reoccurrence of what has happened during the last two years. My own view is that what happened points to a crisis in our penal system, which is a consequence of a larger crisis in our justice system and the social condition of the society at large.
To begin with, there is overcrowding in the prisons which stretches the resources in the prison service to the limit. We are now learning that most of the prisoners were incarcerated for petty offences and that most of them are young people. This, of course, results from an uncaring justice system that facilitates the criminalisation of the young and the poor. Magistrates and judges seem to be too ready to mete out harsh punishment to the defenceless without due regard for the larger consequences.
The use of the criminal justice system to criminalise the poor in the name of law and order is not new. But it’s not just the judges and magistrates who are at fault, it’s also the very legal framework within which they operate. The sentencing guidelines for petty crimes need to be reformed to ensure that offenders are given a chance at rehabilitation rather than face jail time. Everyone knows that our prison system is not geared towards reform of errant individuals; it’s more of an institution for the nurturing of hardened criminals. In this regard, our political leaders need to step up and be bold enough to confront entrenched, but counter-productive notions of law and order.
Then there is the larger problem facing our youth—what drives them to so-called deviant behaviour? My own view is that there is widespread alienation in our society that consumes our young people. Many of them do not feel a sense of ownership of our country; they feel alien to it. There is no sense of security–there is no guarantee, for example, of a proper job when they leave school. And as a society, we feed that sense of alienation and lack of worth among them—we give them a diet of reckless partying to the point where they come to believe that their only worth is in the dancehall. There is something sub-human about that message of constant jamming as the only outlet for the human spirit.
It is in this regard that I think successive governments have failed our people. Our governments have not invested in the humanity of people. Too often, we see them as voters and votes and not as human beings with faces and dignity. Hence, we do not appeal to their humanity in all its beauty; we cater to the ugly part of us. We lock them up in our political prisons and use them to throw ethnic and political missiles at the other. One just has to spend a little time on social media and you become sick to the stomach at some of the nonsense that are encouraged by so-called leaders. Politicians must change course and the two ethno-political giants have to lead the way.
It is no secret that that prison break could not have occurred without some degree of collusion between the escapees and others operating within the system. Hence, there can be no prison reform without the sanitising of the prison service. Over time, our security forces have been allowed to become havens for corruption. I am sure that prison wardens have always helped prisoners to smuggle things into prisons, but one senses that that practice has now become a lucrative industry that has compromised the entire service. This is a serious problem whose roots extend beyond the prison walls.
Prison workers’ wages, like those of other public servants, are unlivable. Many wardens, I am sure, are driven into compromising situations out of sheer desperation. But these workers are too vital to our collective security to be allowed to continue in this way. Again, this is where government comes in—these are government workers. Government must quickly address the issue of public service wages; it has now become a matter of national emergency. Prison Wardens, soldiers and policemen and women are too central to the safety of our citizenry to be allowed to continue to function in a state of vulnerability to corruption. Better wages would not automatically bring an end to corruption in the public service, but it would surely reduce the vulnerability of workers.
So, I submit that in addition to building more secure jails, we have to pay the prison workers better wages. And, critically, government must embark on a massive sensitisation programme aimed at instilling new ethics and values among the wardens. Threats of punishment and dismissal are not enough—there is need for fundamental change in habits and behaviour aimed at creating a prison service that values commitment to job and country. So many of our public service workers, from teachers to police to prison service workers, tend to see their jobs as just a source of a little paycheck and no more. If we are to become a viable nation, that condition has to change.
Our public servants are recruited from communities—that’s where the root of our problems lie. Our communities, from village to town, have become spaces of alienation where human beings doubt their own human worth. These people are forgotten. They are ghettoized in their spaces of existence and can only reproduce the despair that has become their norm. They hear of policies that have nothing to do with them and their daily lives.
They see politicians only when it’s time for voting. They are forced to defend their party and their race out of fear of the other, yet their party does not defend them from poverty and insecurity. They hear of half a million dollars rent for ministers, and they can’t pay their rent because they are either unemployed or underemployed. Is it any surprise that when the get a little job, they take that insecurity into the workplace? Is it any surprise that some of them are willing to protect the runaway prisoner? Is it any surprise that they seek refuge in the dancehall? We have failed them.
With all due respect to Minister Ramjattan, I submit that if a government prioritises prison reform, then it would ensure that the required funds are allocated in that regard. Aren’t funds found for perks for the big ones? I continue to indict this government for not having a coherent approach to dealing with the big problems it inherited—there is no overarching vision. It is not that government is not doing good things, but because there is no proper direction, the desired effect is not being felt. The government, more often than not, reacts to developments and therefore finds itself on the defence. If your objective is to reduce prison overcrowding, then you don’t wait until a major jailbreak happens, then send magistrates to grant bail and release to non-violent offenders. Such a policy should have been part of an overall plan.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org