The Amnesty International report of 2002 cited overcrowding of the Georgetown prison, and appended with cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In addition, it decried the shortage of food, the lack of acceptable hygienic conditions and the poor medical treatment available to prisoners.
And, as if that were not enough, it registered complaints by prisoners who said that they were subject to beatings by squads of policemen who were brought in on specific days solely for that purpose.
That the lines between detention, the violation of human rights and prisoner discipline became a massive smudge of poor administration, politics and egos, is hardly disputable.
It is reported that one former Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine, used to bellow that “prison is not a five star hotel” and that ‘tag line’ soon became the baseline for many an administrative decision. And it was this fiendish principle that sentenced prisoners to death by common ailments like high blood pressure or asthma because going to the doctor was not a luxury provided by the ‘five star’ Georgetown Prison. The ‘five star’ cliché’ had become so popular that then Minister of Home Affairs, Clement Rohee, reportedly, often used it as a clever way to explain away the basic necessities that prisoners lacked.
So, Guyana’s prison system became a conscious violator of human rights up to and inclusive of murder.
Officers are known to brutalize inmates with impunity.
There was a prisoner who was referred to the Georgetown Hospital for removal of fluid from his lungs. The prison staff ignored the referral. He died within ten days.
A key witness in the Rodney Commission Of Inquiry, a current prisoner, has been diagnosed with a specific illness that requires tests which his family is willing to pay for. The prison staff continues to ignore the referral and the prisoner remains untreated.
Officer in charge at Mazaruni Prison, Alexander Hopkinson, reportedly, hit prisoner Anthony Verwayne in the head with his baton in the latter part of 2015. The prisoner was not granted medical examination but was given eight stitches to the head and returned to his cell. Hopkinson remains an officer.
Troy Singh, imprisoned in Timehri, was injured when he and another prisoner were occupants in the 4×4 being driven by Prison Officer Guyandatt, who was purportedly under the influence of alcohol.
The vehicle was was driven so recklessly that it ejected the prisoner, who was chained to Singh, from the tray of the vehicle trapping Singh’s leg, causing enough injuries for him to be confined to the prison infirmary. A recommendation for an investigation into the incident was made. No investigation is recorded and Guyandatt remains a prison officer.
Twyon Thomas had his genitalia and surrounding areas burnt with mentholated spirits during a torture session while in police custody and Edwin Niles was sodomized with a mop handle and died as a result of his injuries. The officers in the Thomas case had the charges dismissed against them because the incapacitated and frightened victim never showed up for trial while mop sodomizer, Prisoner Officer Gladwin Samuels, went on to become Acting Director of Prisons when the murder charge against him was dismissed because the file disappeared en route to the High Court.
These atrocities were documented under the previous Administration and are well known by the current Administration. Minister Trotman had visited Edwin Niles while he was hospitalized following the sodomy with mop stick while in police custody and Minister Ramjattan was overtly vocal about justice for Twyon Thomas, the teen whose genitalia was burnt with mentholated spirits by police men.
In the face of these barbaric, sub human, uncivilized deeds, there was an appearance of trying to correct wrongs. External agencies were invited to assess the problems and offer solutions. The studies were emphatically conclusive that the Guyana Prison System was a chronic violator of Human Rights in its administration and housing of detainees.
One such study was done by IDB Consultant Jean Paul Lupien. Prior to that, there was a consultancy with the United Kingdom and top prison officials of Guyana – Dale Erskine, Pooshanand Tahal, Colin Howard and Trevor Small, then head of Georgetown Prison- were sent to the United Kingdom for a hands on look at prison operations. They returned to Guyana and failed to implement any changes, substantial or else, to the flailing system. To be more precise, they returned and continued business as usual. There was no follow up by the Minister of Home Affairs, Rohee, to confirm that changes had been made.
The training curriculum presented on CD to Dale Erskine by the Canadian Prison Systems and manuals and other training documents gifted to the Guyana Prison service by Her Majesty’s Prisons, UK were placed on a shelf and were never touched.
The training was never implemented.
Repeated prisoner riots had forced the last Administration to construct an additional building to make the stacked prisoner population more manageable. Another renovation was slowed significantly because of “contractor problems”. Overcrowding, thus, remained the issue after millions of tax payers’ dollars were allegedly spent to add a modicum of humanity to the cramming of prisoners into tight spaces.
The appearance of doing something was necessary. Guyana was still a member of the world community
But when the culture is one of condoning of the violation of human rights, and the persecution of those who speak out against the atrocities that go on behind bars, the practice of prisoner brutality becomes the norm, especially when those who are expected to uphold the laws and practices flagrantly violate them and are rewarded with promotions.
There were several recommendations made over the years to improve the chances of the current crisis which has claimed the lives of seventeen inmates during this last riot. To her credit, Gail Texiera, during her interim state as Minister of Home Affairs, had commissioned a prisoner grievance group. Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine, dismantled that when Texiera handed over to Rohee. There was, also, a Sentence Management Program and the establishment of a Sentence Management Board that was devised by personnel trained to secure the rights of prisoners while ensuring that the efficient administration of the Prisons was not compromised. This program was sidelined and summarily dismissed because, in the words of then Director Dale Erskine, “jail man doan run jail”.
So, the combination of brute force and ignorance prevailed and brought us to this day when a country, with just about seven hundred thousand people, would join the ranks of those that are notorious for the violation of the human rights of its prisoners.
This is another sad inheritance for this new administration but the President and the members of this new cabinet were well aware that the Prison System had developed a medieval manner of delivering services. They knew that brutality was a routine part of discipline. They knew that overcrowding existed, that prisoners were deprived of food, that prisoners were given one small tube of tooth paste, one cake of soap and one roll of toilet paper per month. They knew that medical visits were withheld, that officers stole from prisoners. They knew Chief Officer of the Georgetown Prison, David Shepherd, beat prisoner Orin Hinds to a pulp and that the present Director of Prisons, Carl Grahame, covered for David Shepherd. They knew Dale Erskine’s sister, Karen Erskine, a prison officer, was fired for employing prisoner, Mark Wong, to help her sell cigarettes to inmates. They knew Dale Erskine recommended that his sister, Karen, be fired rather than go to trial since trial would have resulted in her incarceration.
They knew Wayne Briggs, the one officer who spoke out against atrocities, who complained about prison officers stealing from prisoners. They knew that Dale Erskine and Pooshanand Tahal summoned him for a hearing because of his reports; would deliberately not see him, filed charges for his dismissal on grounds that he failed to obey a lawful order because they did not ‘see’ him, lost that case and that Briggs remained on full pay for eight years without having a job to go to. (The new Administration has since reemployed him but not in the prison system).
These issues were discussed ad infinitum in international reports – how cell searches resulted in the bare faced stealing of the items of prisoners, the destruction of their persona l property, like eye glasses – violations executed with knavish delight.
Clearly, nothing was done and the point of critical mass was met when prisoners, rooming within a foot of each other, hungry, deprived of basic hygienic items, deprived of mandatory basic human rights as prescribed by the international arenas whose laws and regulations Guyana has agreed to uphold, rioted for their rights.
The death of seventeen inmates while incarcerated is not only shameful but requires a full and open investigation.
This Administration, under President Granger, inclusive of Minister of Public Security, Kemraj Ramjattan and Minister Raphael Trotman who was part of a Human Rights investigation, have now established a Board of Inquiry to investigate the incidents that culminated in the deaths of these seventeen incarcerated citizens.
Heading the Board is former Justice James Patterson, Guyana Human Rights Association member Merle Mendonca and former Director of Prisons Dale Erskine.
Justice Patterson has practiced for decades and has sentenced prisoners to a system that has always been challenged by sustaining prisoner Human Rights. Though the law says I can’t say what he knew, I will say that he knew that the system was woefully flawed since then.
Merle Mendoca has been the voice of prisoner Human Rights throughout its decades of prisoner abuse and in all the years she served in this capacity, she has never made a full throated, bare bones, honest report about the way humans were treated behind bars.
Dale Erskine…… well….. in addition to how he failed throughout his career to advance any improvement to the system, how he calculatedly disallowed any measure to enhance the prison system that he oversaw, how he deliberately covered the routine violation of the rights of incarcerated prisoners up to and inclusive of murder, are all grounds that immediately and unequivocally disqualify him from any forum that will investigate why prisoners would revolt against the conditions they were forced to live under.
All this makes us wonder how serious President Granger and Minister of Public Security, Kemraj Ramjattan, really are about improving prisoner conditions and getting a real answers to prisoner problems.
President Granger has to know who the members of this Board of Inquiry are. He has to know that James Patterson sentenced prisoners to this system, as flawed as it was. He has to know that Merle Mendonca was a compliant player, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the real issues of the incarcerated for as long as she was Human Rights representative, that Dale Erskine is a rogue and a scoundrel proven multiple times throughout a career that was, literally, illustrious to fault.
We expect him, President Granger, to review this Board and remove those members, particularly Mendonca and Erskine, whose selection reflect very poorly on the integrity of the Board and the genuineness of the government’s attempt to get to the bottom of the cause of the riots which resulted in multiple deaths and resolve any issues.
Might we add that sending home Deputy Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels- the prisoner officer who escaped murder trial after sodomizing a prisoner with a mop stick because his file ‘got lost’ on the way to the High Court and was subsequently rewarded with more promotions- is merely the beginning of dismantling this shameful agency that Guyana has consistently been forced to defend.
Employees are ashamed enough to want to tell us what they know but afraid enough to seek to do so undercover. We remain available to facilitate every bit of information that could lead to revamping this sickeningly cultish system.
Watch this space.