Whenever your main penitentiary is obliterated by arsonists within and the main plotters make a clean escape and haven’t been recaptured a week later, the country faces a major problem. There can be no overstating of this.
Less than a year after he was sworn in to serve his first term as President, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo was confronted by the bloody break-out from the Camp Street jail by five prisoners on February 23rd, 2002. His administration never recovered from it. This gruesome incident triggered the worst criminal violence seen in the post-independence history of the country with dozens of householders, policemen and businesspersons having been targeted and murdered by the criminals. At least two of the mass murders of 2008 were believed to be orchestrated by persons and groups that came to be associated with the five men who escaped from the prison in 2002. Indeed, one of the escapees from the July 9th, 2017 conflagration and break-out, Mark Royden Williams, was recently convicted and sentenced to death in connection with the Bartica massacre. He is also someone who has had experience with a gang. It is imperative that he be recaptured as quickly as possible.
It was in the milieu of the virtual siege by the 2002 escapees, during the tenure of Mr Jagdeo, that actors on behalf of the government created relationships in the underworld to prosecute the fight against criminals. A notorious linkage with the drug lord, Roger Khan and numerous shadowy figures associated with him became the lynchpin of these extrajudicial operations, drawing the state into clearly criminal activity. Myriad questions remain about this period, the dozens of unexplained deaths and who in the then administration liaised with this mercenary effort.
Given the episodic eruption of prison unrest and numerous demonstrations on the roof of the Camp Street jail prior to the 2002 break-out, the Jagdeo government should have been well aware of the risks of a revolt and been better prepared particularly considering that the PPP/C had already been in office for a full decade.
Fast forward to 2017 and the country is grappling with arguably its worst prison crisis in its post-Independence history. If the Jagdeo administration was caught off guard in in 2002, this government should have clearly been in a better position to insulate the country against break-outs of this magnitude. It had the benefit of knowing what transpired in 2002 and the findings of the Kennard report which inquired into the escape. It had the benefit of access to the comprehensive recommendations made in 2004 by the Disciplined Forces Commission. Importantly, it had the benefit of the horrific insurrection at the said Camp Street prison 15 months ago where 17 prisoners were burnt to death following several days of heated protests over the delays faced by remand prisoners and other grouses. It also had the benefit of a detailed report replete with recommendations by Justice James Patterson on the March 3rd 2016 disaster at the prison when fires were also set by prisoners.
Despite all of this, the APNU+AFC administration, bristling with retired joint services officials, was unable to prevent the demolition of the prison and five inmates remain on the run – three of them considered to be very dangerous. In normal polities, once the situation had stabilised, considering ministerial responsibility and that this was the second major disaster at the prison in just over 15 months, the Minister of Public Security would have resigned, been asked to resign or be dismissed. While the Minister of Public Security is not known to be a security expert, President Granger is recognised as a public figure with wide-ranging experience in security matters and as leader of the PNCR, Opposition Leader and now President he has made security a key pillar of his administration. This failure on July 9th is therefore also his.
The failure is even more acute when one considers that President Granger was a commissioner on the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) which in May of 2004 – over 13 years ago – produced a comprehensive list of recommendations on all of the various forces including the Guyana Prison Service (GPS).
Among the admonitions in that DFC report were that “As the prison population increases there must be a commensurate increase in the actual and authorised strength of the security personnel of the GPS…
“Timely efforts should be made, within the constraint of available budgetary resources, to increase the salaried and non-salaried benefits currently accorded to prison officers in order to attract suitably qualified applicants.
“Adequate monitoring devices and warning technology should be installed or upgraded in prisons…”
“The Mazaruni Prison should be rehabilitated and upgraded to perform its intended function… The Commission is of the view that there is grave danger in having too many high-security-risk prisoners in the Georgetown Prison. This risk can be considerably minimised if those convicted among such prisoners are accommodated at Mazaruni Prison…
“If it is given an adequate number of prison officers for effective supervision, the Commission is of the opinion that the Mazaruni Prison offers the greatest prospect for relieving the congestion which currently obtains at the Georgetown Prison and for prisoners to be engaged in constructive activities”.
Having been aware of these critical issues as they pertain to the prisons, President Granger and his government had more than two years to take radical action prior to the conflagration two Sundays ago. Indeed, matters became even more urgent on March 3rd last year when 17 prisoners died. Yet, there was sloth. Why wasn’t a new prison fast-tracked in tandem with the administrative buildings that are currently being erected? On July 9th, the Camp Street prison remained severely overcrowded, holding at least 1,000 prisoners and the most dangerous convicts were still accommodated there including the suspected mastermind. These prisoners, particularly from the capital section, should have been moved long ago to the Mazaruni Prison as was expected. There is no acceptable excuse why this situation persisted two years after APNU+AFC took office. The ratio of guards to prisoners, the ratio of male to female guards and their pay are also key matters which have not been satisfactorily addressed.
July 9th was a massive failure of intelligence which leads one to surmise that the level of dissent and dissatisfaction in the Camp Street Prison was of such order that the authorities had no inkling at all of developments that could threaten national security as was the case two Sundays ago. A small number of prisoners orchestrated a tautly wound escape plot that entailed setting fires and then leaving via the front door. As bizarre as it sounds, it succeeded and the government has to be held accountable for this.
The government’s top priorities must now be the recapture of the escapees and immediate action on a secure facility for high-risk prisoners. It must also not lose sight of the human tragedy of this breakout. The death of prison warder, Mr Odinga Wickham must see his family being adequately compensated and not with the $1m pittance that has been referenced by Minister Ramjattan. The death of Mr Wickham must also see this government ensuring that the families of all law enforcement personnel who die in the line of duty are adequately cared for.