East Indian Immigration and Incarceration in Post-Emancipation British Guiana.

Estherine Adams

It drives one out of his mind,
British Guiana drives us out of our minds.

In Rowa there is the court house,
In Sodi is the police station,
In Camesma is the prison.
It drives one crazy,
It is British Guiana.
The court house in Wakenaam,
The police station in Parika,
The prison in Georgetown, Drive you crazy.

(Ved Prakash Vatuk. “Protest Songs of East Indians in British Guiana.”)

This post presents some initial thoughts on the connections between East Indian immigration and incarceration in Colonial British Guiana between 1838 and 1917 as so poignantly expressed through the lyrics of the East Indian Protest Song. Allusions to the period of East Indian immigration in British Guiana does not generally evoke images of prisons but disproportionate number of immigrants spent their period of indenture in this institution. 

Each year, on average, magistrates served warrants on twenty percent of the indentured population in British Guiana, had a conviction rate above fifteen percent and an imprisonment rate of about seven percent (Bolland, 1981). This, according to one historian, “represented tens of thousands of prosecutions instituted by managers and overseers against labourers” and resulted in their stark overrepresentation in the colony’s penal system (Mohapatra, 1981). In 1874 for example of the 4,936 persons in the Georgetown prison, 3,148 were indentured labourers. This trend epitomizes the planters oft-quoted remark that the place of the indentured immigrant was either “at work, in hospital, or in gaol [prison],” and captures the connection between the prison system and the immigration schemes that emerged in Colonial British Guiana (Guyana Chronicle, 2014).

Estate Hospital in British Guiana, The Illustrated London News, 23 March 1889.

The arrival of East Indians in British Guiana coincided with Emancipation and the Village Movement, two significant developments that initiated labour scarcity. The gradual withdrawal of freed Africans from plantation labour led to the introduction of East Indian immigration and the expansion of the prison population due to exploitation and the stringent enforcement of the contract and the labour laws. These labour laws were heavily skewed against the immigrant, even though they stipulated the obligation of both the employer and the labourer. The plantocracy easily manipulated the laws and the courts system in general, to control the immigrants who could be prosecuted for refusal to commence work, or work left unfinished, absenteeism without authority, disorderly of threatening behaviour, neglect or even drunkenness (Dabydeen, 1987). As Guyanese historian Tota Mangar notes, “court trials were subjected to abuse and were, in many instances, reduced to a farce as official interpreters aligned with the plantocracy while the labourers had little opportunity of defending themselves” (Guyana Chronicle, 2014).

In 1838, East Indians comprised less than one percent of the total population. By 1851 this increased to six percent, jumped to 25.8 percent in 1871, and rose again to 42.2 percent in 1901 (NAG, 1901). The prison population followed the same trajectory: as immigration schemes expanded, the prison population expanded. Similarly, as the scheme declined in the early twentieth century the colony’s prison population noticeably declined. Although earlier prison reports differentiate between prisoner by race (white, coloured and black) and crimes committed rather than nationality, a look at the categories of crimes for which persons were incarcerated and the duration of sentences strongly suggests high rates of East Indian incarceration.  

The number of annual convictions for offences against “the Masters and Servants Act including acts relating to indentured Indians” also alludes to a large incarcerated Indian population.  The annual reports indicate that local authorities mainly convicted immigrants for this crime punishable by fines or imprisonment for periods of two weeks to two months. The average immigrant could not pay the fines thus, prison was often the only alternative. For instance, in 1840, of the 1403 persons incarcerated 951 served sentences of three months or fewer for breach of contract.  By 1860, of the 4313 total prison population, 3005 served prison sentences of three months or fewer, while in 1880, of 8393 prisoners, 7459 served similar sentences.  As the general prison population began declining in the waning year of immigration, the high rate of incarceration for persons serving sentences for three months or fewer remained constant. In 1900, for instance, 3045 of the 4610 persons incarcerated served sentences of three months or fewer. It was only after the abolition of immigration in 1917 that a perceptible decline can be observed, for example, in 1918, of 3367 1321 were incarcerated for this duration (TNA, British Guiana Blue Books, 1860, 1880, 1890, 1920).

Beginning in the 1880s Annual Prison Returns categorized convicted persons according to their nationality.  The authority’s need to classify the prison population by nationality is of itself an indicator, not only of an increasing East Indian population in the jails, but also their disproportionate incarceration.  For example, the total population of the colony for 1884 was 252,186.  The East Indian segment of the population was 32,637 of which 15,251 were under indenture. The Annual Prison Returns for that year reveals the following: of the 4,659 persons incarcerated, there were 11 Madeirans, 36 Americans, 43 Chinese, 57 Africans, 84 Europeans, 97 other West Indians, 658 Barbadians, 1630 British Guianese, 2043 East Indians (NAG, 1884).  While in this year East Indians represented 12.9 percent of the Colony’s total population, they represented 43.9 percent of persons in jail.

Associated with the rise in incarceration rates for immigrant labour was an exponential growth in prison locations in the colony. These prisons, interspersed along the sugar belt, ideally located for immigrants to serve short sentences.  Planters continuously petitioned the local legislature for additional prison locations, complaining that in some area “five or six days might be spent in journeying to and from the prison where hard labour was to [be] perform[ed] so that short sentences of seven days or less were rendered ludicrous [and] an expensive waste of time” (NAG, 1860).  In 1838, British Guiana boasted three prison locations in the three administrative counties–Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice–to serve the colony’s 65,556 inhabitants. The two prisons at Georgetown and New Amsterdam, pre-dated British occupation (1803), while the Wakenaam Goal was established in 1837.  At indenture’s abolition in 1917, the colony, with a population of 298,188 had eleven prison locations (NAG, 1860). 

During the seventy-nine years of indentureship, the colony established Capoey Gaol (1838), Her Majesty’s Penal Settlement Mazaruni (HMPS) (1842), Fellowship Gaol (1868), Mahaica (1868), Suddie (1874), Best (1879), Number 63 Gaol (1888), and Morawhanna (1898) (Adams, 2010).  After the abolition of the indentureship system most of these prisons became uninhabited and closed for lack of inmates, thus by 1920 only Georgetown, New Amsterdam, HMPS Mazaruni and Morawhanna prisons remained open (NAG, 1921). This strongly suggests that immigration was the driving impetus for prison expansion. The country currently has five prison sites for its 750,000 inhabitants.

These statistics elicit a number of questions including: what were prison experiences like for these immigrants?  What accommodations, if any, were made for them in the system?  How, in other words, was the penal system, and the administrative structures that supported it, transformed by the presence of this new group of people whom those in power wished to control?  Other historians have established a connection between immigration and increasing mental health issues among East Indian immigrants. (Moss, 2020) To what extent did incarceration influence this phenomenon or did mental health issues influence incarceration?  I anticipate that as our team continue its research into Mental Health, Neurological Disorders and Substance Abuse in Guyana’s jails, we will uncover answers to these questions.   

Estherine Adams is a research associate on the ESRC GCRF project Mental Health, Neurological and Substance Abuse Disorders in Guyana’s Jails, 1825 to the present day.

Epidemics and pandemics in British Guiana’s jails, in the 19th and 20th centuries

Clare Anderson and Kellie Moss

As has become evident as the Covid-19 pandemic extends its grip all over the world today, jails are environments in which infectious diseases can be easily spread. This is especially the case in overcrowded conditions, most especially where prisoners share accommodation and washing and toilet facilities. Historically, outbreaks and epidemics of diarrhoea, dysentery, respiratory illnesses, and whooping cough were the most prevalent diseases in the colony of British Guiana, including in prisons. To these can be added the mosquito-borne illnesses malaria and yellow fever. Limited levels of healthcare and poor sanitation within the prison system meant that after the British began its jail building programme from the 1820s, containing the spread of disease was an ongoing problem. In Her Majesty’s Penal Settlement (HMPS) Mazaruni in 1871, for example, over a third of the prisoners in hospital were suffering from diseases incurred by overcrowding, bad ventilation, and a ‘total lack of any sanitary measures’. The following year, fears were expressed that in the event of an epidemic, Georgetown jail was so overcrowded that the consequences would be disastrous. In fact, this scare underpinned a call for a reduction in the number of prisoners overall, though this did not follow until the first part of the 20th century.

Plan of New Amsterdam Jail, 1841, showing the hospital (“C”)

Despite this recognition, a general lack of concern regarding the welfare of prisoners ensured that epidemics continued to plague the prison system in the decades that followed. Furthermore, once an infectious disease entered the system, the authorities were unable to keep it contained. For example, following an initial case of influenza at HMPS Mazaruni in 1895, recurring outbreaks of the disease were reported in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Suddie prisons until 1899. The medical officers however, routinely denied any connection between ‘prevalent diseases’ and living conditions. The outbreaks were, instead, attributed to the debilitated condition of the inmates prior to their admittance to prison. This, the medical officers noted, left many prone to catch the disease after only the ‘slightest exposure to chill’. It would be almost 20 years before colonial prison authorities were willing to take responsibility for the conditions that facilitated the spread of infectious diseases.

HM Penal Settlement on the Rio Massaruni, c. 1870-1931. Source: The National Archives UK CO1069/355
‘This view is taken from the side gallery of the Superintendent’s house. The Prison faces East, towards the river. These Halls … are now the oldest portion, and are built of stone … The Union Jack is hoisted on Sundays and special festivals. The Convicts are fallen in on parade, for muster and search before proceeding to labour after their dinner, and represent about 300 men. The end of the roof of the Commissioners’ House is seen to the right among the trees.’

In September 1919, the Acting Surgeon-General of British Guiana J.H. Conyers submitted his usual annual report to Governor Sir Wilfred Collet. In it, he noted the prevalence of the ‘influenza epidemic’, or what we now commonly refer to as the ‘Spanish flu’. What had started out as a mild strain in August 1918, had by November become a severe epidemic that had penetrated the furthest reaches of the colony, including especially dwellings on the plantations. The hospitals of Georgetown and New Amsterdam were, Conyers reported, ‘sorely tested’. In words that resonate today as the Covid-19 virus challenges health systems all over the world, he concluded that the medical service had only managed the situation through deferring all non-urgent operations and other hospital work. Efforts were also made by the health authorities to isolate patients, and their visitors, to eliminate the possibility of the spread of the infection by acute carriers. We now know that the Spanish flu killed between 25 and 30 million people worldwide. The most devastating pandemic in modern history, it affected the whole of the Caribbean, including the colony of British Guiana. It was estimated at the time that out of a total mortality of 8,887 in the months of December, January and February, influenza was responsible for 6,378 deaths. Historian David Killingray puts the figure even higher, at perhaps as many as 20,000.

The influenza pandemic also impacted on the colony’s prisons. From the first recorded patient in Georgetown jail, in December 1918, a virulent strain of the disease spread rapidly throughout the prison population. The transfer of inmates between prison sites meant that cases of the disease emerged soon after in Mazaruni, New Amsterdam, and Suddie. In comparison to previous years the total number of deaths recorded tripled. In 1917, 17 inmates had died in hospital. In 1918, the figure was 30, or 6.5% of the daily average (i.e. the number of prisoners in jail on any given day, not the total number admitted during the year). Although we do not have details of the cause of all these deaths, the Acting Surgeon-General noted the pandemic was to blame for ‘a considerable part’. It was also noted, at the time, how prompt preventive measures by prison authorities, such as the isolation of those displaying symptoms, and improved sanitary measures helped to prevent an even greater spread within the system. This was a difficult task given that fever and dysentery was rife amongst members of the prison staff. Most significantly, however we have no sources that indicate how prisoners and prison officers – or the population at large – understood and experienced the pandemic. Whatever the case, we do know that the overall mortality from the influenza pandemic in the colony was high, as 17.7% of those who contracted the disease died. This figure rose to 21.1% in the colony’s prisons. This means that although a relatively small number of inmates died, they died in larger numbers than the free population. Furthermore, the colonial authorities used prisoners to dig graves in the colony’s capital of Georgetown.

New Amsterdam Hospital, c. 1950. Source: Government Information Agency, Guyana

In the wake of the outbreak, a concerted effort was made by the prison system to enhance levels of hygiene. From this point a small group of prisoners were designated the task of improving sanitary measures within each prison. Efforts to isolate sick inmates and disinfect their cells were also strictly adhered to, although these attempts were not always successful in impeding the spread. Medical officers were often required to convert association wards into temporary hospital bays due to the number of cases, and the lack of suitable medical facilities. At a senior level further attention was also paid to reducing contaminated water supplies, and the breeding of flies, common sources of dysentery and diarrhoea. Yet, despite these efforts intermittent outbreaks of disease continued to plague the colony, although never again on the scale experienced in 1919. For example, there was a localised epidemic at the end of 1933. This caused higher rates of morbidity and mortality overall across the whole colony, but for reasons which are not entirely clear did not impact on prisons.

Clare Anderson is Principal Investigator, and Kellie Moss is Research Associate on the ESRC GCRF project MNS disorders in Guyana’s jails, 1825 to the present day.

Sources:

Papers relating to the improvement of prison discipline in the colonies (London: Harrison and Sons, 1875).

The British Library, Surgeons-General Reports, 1894-95, 1895-96, 1897-98, 1898-99, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1933, 1935 & 1938.

The British Library, Inspector of Prisons Reports, 1894-95, 1895-96, 1897-98, 1898-99, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1933, 1935 & 1938.

The National Archives UK, British Guiana original correspondence, 1872; Colonial Office Photographic Collection, c. 1870-1931.

Richard Coker, ‘Expert Report: Covid-19 and prisons in England and Wales’, 31 March 2020

David Killingray, ‘The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 in the British Caribbean’, Social History of Medicine, Volume 7, Issue 1, April 1994, pp. 59–87.

History of Substance Use and Control in Guyana

Kellie Moss

The control of psychoactive substances in Guyana was established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through varied national and international drug control initiatives related to opium, cannabis, and the supervision of pharmaceutical products. As in other colonies, early measures were implemented as a means of social control for the economically disadvantaged. Missionaries were amongst the first to draw attention to the use of psychotropic substances by Indigenous peoples (known as Amerindians) in association with spiritual and recreational experiences. The Accaway’s, who inhabited Upper Demerara, Mazaruni, and the Putaro districts, produced a fermented beverage known as piwari for feasts (Bernau, 1847). Traditionally prepared for male consumption, missionaries noted that women would chew cassava bread into a pulp adding water until fermented. The men would then drink until they were in a state of ‘beastly intoxication’, or the trough (generally a canoe used for the purpose of fermentation) was empty (Duff, 1866). In addition to spiritual and recreational purposes, Amerindians also utilised fermented beverages for medicinal purposes, such as reducing fever (quassia bark), stomach ache (mauby bark, also known as a ‘decoction of woods’), and enriching the blood (sorrel plant). To motivate and organise the Indigenous population, colonial agents encouraged, and fostered their dependency on psychotropic substances. This included distilled spirits, such as rum or brandy (Bernau, 1847). This rapid introduction to distilled spirits, in addition to European influence on habits of consumption, resulted in social dependencies that tied the Amerindian labour force to the colonial system. Although informal, the fostering of chemical dependencies played a pivotal role in the political and economic shaping of the colony, as the colonial authorities increasingly used this technique as a means to control those on the fringes of society.  

Piwarry Feast of the Accaway Tribe: Wellcome Library , EPB/B/13446, Bernau, J. H. (John Henry), Missionary Labours in British Guiana (John Farquhar Shaw, London, 1847).

Legislation to criminalise the use of psychoactive substances was first introduced in Guyana in 1838, following the termination of the apprenticeship system, through which the formerly enslaved were tied to their previous owners for a four-year period. To avoid a decline in plantation labour the colonial government introduced numerous measures to restrict African movement, including in 1839 an ordinance for the ‘relief of the destitute poor’ (TNA, CO 113/1).This act granted the Court of Policy (legislative council) the power to ‘set to work’ those unable to support themselves (TNA, CO 113/1). In accordance with the act, anyone caught absconding, drunk, introducing, or attempting to introduce spiritous or fermented liquors into the workhouses could be sentenced to hard labour in prison for one month (TNA, CO 113/1). Despite the introduction of such measures the formerly enslaved continued to leave sugar estates in favour of villages and urban centres. To offset this emerging labour vacuum plantation owners imported indentured contract labourers from Africa, Asia, and Europe (TNA, CO 113/1).

As a result of its introduction to Guyana by indentured immigrants from South Asia (known as East Indians), the cultivation of Indian hemp, more commonly known as cannabis, quickly became a thriving cottage industry. Widely believed to have spiritual and medicinal connotations, the cultivation and use of the plant had long been a part of Hindu tradition (Russo, 2005). Accepted by plantation owners in the Caribbean, the use of cannabis was, to a certain extent, even promoted as a means of enhancing labourers’ productivity (Jankowiak & Bradburd, 2003). As one of the oldest-known plants in Asia cannabis was prepared and used in various forms. Bhang, the dried leaves of the plant, being the cheapest and most widespread, was reported by British medical officers to produce a ‘quiet, pleasant delirium’. The sticky yellow resin of the plant known as charas (hashish), on the other hand, was believed to cause ‘excitement attended with violence’. The drug was also used in the form of a sweetmeat called majun, and smoked as ganja, which was made from the plants dried flower tops. The latter preparation was the one generally chosen among indentured labourers in the colony owing to its low cost (British Medical Journal, 1893).

De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes, L. Fuchs, 1842: Wellcome Collection.

As the nineteenth century progressed official opposition to cannabis first arose in recognition of the drug’s alleged debilitating effects. They were concerned that indentured labourers were spending more time and effort growing cannabis than attending to their work on the estates. Furthermore, colonial authorities also expressed unease regarding the excessive use of cannabis, which some felt had the tendency to increase rather than reduce confrontation, particularly in hostile situations. Concerns regarding the effects of the drug continued to grow as the use of cannabis, which was believed to have been initially confined to Hindu men, spread amongst the different ethnic groups on the estates (British Medical Journal, 1893). Owing to the increased number of incidents being attributed to substance abuse, an ordinance to regulate the sale of opium and bhang was introduced to the colony in 1861 (TNA, CO 113/4). The primary focus of the act was to restrict the access of Indian and Chinese immigrants to the drug (TNA, CO 113/4). The evidence for this legislation, however, was based on little more than the casual observations of plantation owners. Critics used evidence of substance abuse to feed into larger classifications and ideas about race and its connection to moral character (TNA, CO 113/8). Debates regarding the use of psychotropic substances and their control are therefore rooted historically in much wider concerns related to colonial power structures, and the rights and privileges of the labouring population.

With recurrent concerns regarding the use of opium and cannabis in Guyana, namely the link between insanity and substance abuse, rum was rapidly introduced by plantation owners as an alternative (British Medical Journal, 1893). Unlike cannabis, and its indirect benefits as a labour enhancer, the planters directly profited from the production and distribution of rum (TNA, CO 113/8). Interested in creating a captive consumer class, official tolerance in the Caribbean regarding the use of rum was also predominantly favoured by colonial authorities. Simultaneously, the sanctioned access to alcohol for labourers was a powerful incentive for immigrants to engage in plantation work. Unsurprisingly, the consumption of alcohol dramatically increased during this period as indentured immigrants became increasingly reliant on its effects to obscure the misery of plantation life. The consolidation of laws relating to indentured immigrants in 1873, namely those in connection to the penalties for drunk and disorderly conduct, highlight the extent of its escalation as penalties for drunk and disorderly conduct were further outlined (TNA, CO 113/5).By positing a need for such measures, the plantation owners served to justify their exploitative and oppressive actions towards the labourers.

Internationally the drive to control psychoactive substances began in 1912 at the International Opium Convention at the Hague (TNA, CO 113/13). Despite the lack of agreement amongst the delegates a discussion on cannabis had lasting repercussions for Guyana as legislation was introduced to further regulate the importation and sale of Indian Hemp in 1913 (TNA, CO 113/13). Despite the lack of scientific or medical data to support these international debates cannabis was designated from this point as a dangerous drug. The cultivation and importation of cannabis was officially criminalised in Guyana following the introduction of the 1938 Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. Later amendments followed Guyana’s independence with the United Nations Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988, which required states to adopt measures to establish as a criminal offence any activity related to narcotic drugs (CARICOM Report, 2018). This demand continues to place pressure on Guyana’s overstretched prison system (see Ayres, 2020).

Throughout the history of Guyana, the use of psychotropic substances has been determined therefore, by numerous factors, such as cultural expectations and economic motivations. Drugs became a reward to encourage productivity, but also led to debts and addictions, all of which ensured the economically disadvantaged remained bound to their employers. The stimulating properties of these substances and their ability to establish and solidify bonds, whether economic, cultural or religious, has ensured their enduring and widespread demand from pre-colonisation to the present day.

Kellie Moss is a research associate on the ESRC GCRF project Mental Health, Neurological and Substance Abuse Disorders in Guyana’s Jails, 1825 to the present day.

Substance Use in Guyana: The Cannabis Conundrum

Traditionally Guyana’s approach to drugs has been punitive, with imprisonment being used as a tool to eradicate drug use and supply, which includes cannabis. Cannabis users in Guyana still face a mandatory prison sentence of three years for the possession of one joint (a cannabis cigarette). However, this policy has failed and like many other countries, Guyana is proposing to remove custodial sentences for small amounts of cannabis (30 grams or less). Last year the government made the first steps towards changing the law by drafting amendments to the Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill 2015. Although nothing has changed yet, and the possession of cannabis remains illegal, the proposed changes show that Guyana is moving with international opinion and implementing similar practices as those adopted in other countries, including those in the Caribbean. The implementation of a prison sentence for personal use of cannabis has been described as excessive and disproportionate and has been shown to have a negative impact on the life chances, travel and future careers of those prosecuted and imprisoned under these laws. Therefore, this blog focuses on some of the issues at stake in the shift in Guyana towards a less punitive and more rehabilitative treatment orientated approach to substance use, particularly in relation to cannabis.

Substance use in Guyana has been identified as a problem in the National Mental Health Action Plan (NMHAP) and the National Drug Strategy Master Plan 2016-2020 (NDSMP). Both include the use of legal substances like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications alongside illegal substances like cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. It is acknowledged that in Guyana, there is a need to better understand the use of substances and address the number of shortfalls in responding to substance use. These include inadequate service provision, inter-sectorial and multi-agency collaboration; inadequate treatment and rehabilitative facilities; and insufficiently trained personnel. As with most other countries the substances most widely used in Guyana are alcohol and cannabis. These are the most popular substances among the general population but also among those with more problematic patterns of substance use/dependence like prisoners and/or those accessing drug treatment. Cannabis use has been linked with psychosis and mental ill-health in Guyana, while evidence has shown that alcohol plays a prominent role in suicide, which has also been identified as a public health issue in Guyana (see Halliwell, 2019). Alongside cannabis and alcohol, cocaine and its derivatives, particularly crack, are also prevalent among those with more problematic patterns of substance use/dependence. However, it is cannabis, rather than other narcotic substances that dominates the Guyanese statistics and has been subject to much scrutiny over the last decade.

Like many other countries across the globe the legal status of and laws on cannabis have been subject to much criticism, protest and debate in Guyana; a country where a minimum mandatory sentence of three years imprisonment is still imposed for possession of a small quantity of the drug. In fact, the laws prohibiting drugs in Guyana and other Caribbean countries, particularly pertaining to cannabis, have been described as draconian, ‘ineffective, incongruous, obsolete and deeply unjust’ (CARICOM, 2018). This is largely due to the disproportionate sentences imposed in Guyana for the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use (5 grams) and the low thresholds utilised for the presumption of drug trafficking (15 grams) in a country where cannabis is grown and used by approximately 5% of the population every year.

Cannabis is widely used across the Commonwealth Caribbean and throughout history has been used culturally, religiously and medicinally around the globe. Despite many of these cultural and religious practices originating in Asia, the use of cannabis also has a long history among Caribbean peoples and countries, including in Guyana (formerly British Guiana). The production, use and prohibition of cannabis in British Guiana was intertwined with the history of colonialism, enslavement and immigration. In fact, cannabis was introduced to Guyana post-emancipation by East Indian indentured labourers (CARICOM, 2018). Much of the early legislation passed to control cannabis in British Guiana – the 1861 Ordinance to Regulate the Sale of Opium and Bhang (an edible form of cannabis that is also an integral part of Hindu rituals and festivals) and the 1913 Indian Hemp Ordinance of British Guiana – can be attributed to the cultural practices of Indian indentured labourers, and the implementation of international treaties that deemed cannabis a dangerous drug, despite persuasive evidence suggesting the contrary. The role of cannabis in religious practices among Caribbean peoples, particularly among Rastafarians, is also well documented. It is also the Rastafarian community who have been fighting for cannabis law reform in Guyana. They regard cannabis as a holy herb, a gift from God that has medicinal and spiritual benefits and believe they should be exempt from the laws prohibiting it. Cannabis laws have been shown to disproportionately affect poor, minority communities that are marginalised, particularly when it comes to the offence of drug possession and trafficking.

There are high levels of incarceration for drug offences in Guyana. In 2017, the majority of individuals charged and convicted with drug possession by Guyanese authorities were for cannabis (93% and 90% respectively), with just under a fifth (18%) of these people being under the age of 18 years old. The majority of those charged (88%) and convicted (81%) of drug trafficking was also for cannabis. In fact, drug offences (both possession and supply) are the second most prevalent crime for which prisoners are arrested for in Guyana, after intentional homicide or murder. This is particularly true for females; despite comprising less than 5% of the prison population, the majority of women in Guyana are incarcerated for drug offences (54%), particularly for drug trafficking (GUYDIN, 2017; Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017). In fact, just under a quarter (21.3%) of all prisoners are in prison for drug possession or trafficking, and drug offenders have the third highest recidivism rate (21.6%). Thus, drug offences, which mostly relate to cannabis, are contributing to an already overwhelmed, overstretched and under resourced prison system (USDS, 2019). The issue of non-custodial sentences for the possession of cannabis and its subsequent overcrowding were factors that led to the 2017 fire started by prisoners in Georgetown Prison, which killed 17 prisoners (see Ifill, 2019).

Not only are a significant proportion of the prison population incarcerated for drug offences, prisoners in Guyana tend to have higher rate of substance use than the general population. Just over a fifth (22.7%) of prisoners in Guyana admitted to using alcohol and/or drugs in the last month while in prison, with the majority using cannabis (84%) and alcohol (33%) (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017); substance use was found to be highest among those held in Lusignan (44%) and Timehri (42%) prisons. Despite being rife in prison, drugs have a negative impact on both staff and prisoners. The use and supply of drugs in prison, and the debts arising from the drug trade contribute to high levels of violence, corruption, intimidation, self-harm and mental ill-health. While drugs are brought in by prisoners and their families, prison officers are also reported to supply drugs and other contraband to prisoners (see Ifill 2019). In fact, last year, Guyana’s Prison Service (GPS) confiscated 12.81 kilograms of cannabis indicating the problem of maintaining the levels of security necessary to stop drugs entering Guyana’s prisons. There has also been a move by GPS towards a more rehabilitative approach that proposes more drug treatment for prisoners. However, there are a number of limitations delaying the implementation of drug treatment provision across Guyana’s prisons (e.g., the infrastructure, limited resources and inadequately trained personnel). Currently, the Drug Demand Reduction Unit of the Ministry of Public Health has drug and alcohol counselling programmes in the Timehri, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam, Female prison. There have also been steps taken to look at alternatives to incarceration for drug dependent, nonviolent offenders in Guyana in line with United Nations Special Session on Drugs Outcome Document and the US-sponsored CND resolution (2016). As a consequence, Guyana is piloting a Drug Treatment Court in Georgetown, which aims to divert drug users out of the criminal justice system and into treatment, which has been outlined in the new drug strategy for Guyana.

In fact, the new Guyanese National Drug Strategy Master Plan (NDSMP) 2016-2020 was ‘triggered by the need to bring it in line with most recent national and international dynamics of the drug problem and built on Guyana’s previous drug strategies (NDSMP 2005-2009 and NDSMP 2014-2018). The plan outlines national drug policy, identifies key priorities, assigns responsibilities and delineates the operational plans of each government department involved in implementing the NDSMP, which will be overseen by National Anti-Narcotics Agency (NANA) that was established in 2017.

The new strategy emphasises a holistic Public Health approach and the Guyanese government are putting measures in place to improve the provision of drug treatment at all levels of the healthcare system. Substance use in Guyana is largely dealt with by utilising a public-private, holistic multi-agency approach to drug prevention and treatment, although fostering a rehabilitative culture in prison is also a part of the drug strategy. Currently the Georgetown Public Hospital, Psychiatric Unit provides outpatient treatment services, the Ministry of Education delivers drug education in schools, while two NGOs (Phoenix Recovery Project and the Salvation Army Men’s Centre) provide inpatient treatment for substance use, which utilise the 12-step model; in fact, in the new drug strategy the Phoenix Recovery Project and the Salvation Army will get a subvention to aid in carrying out their services and increase capacity. Substance users are not only detained in Guyana’s prisons but also in the National Psychiatric Hospital, which is used to treat those suffering from substance induced psychosis and other substance related mental health issues. Last year, two-thirds of the 180 in-patients at the National Psychiatric Hospital were suffering from substance induced psychosis, with nearly three-quarters of these identifying as cannabis users. This has led to concerns being raised about the removal of custodial sentences for cannabis possession by some of the country’s psychologists working in this area.  

                             NANA in Guyana (Photograph: Martin Halliwell)

While the legal status of cannabis remains under debate in Guyana and the piloting of Drug Treatment Courts gets underway, the Guyanese government have made it clear they are not ready to legalise or decriminalise cannabis as recommended by the CARICOM Commission on Marijuana (CARICOM, 2018). Although some might argue the proposed initiatives do not go far enough, the removal of custodial sentences for small amounts of cannabis will mean fewer people are being sent to prison for non-violent drug related offences imposed by laws that have been described as ‘draconian’ ‘discriminatory’ and ‘outdated’. It will also help to alleviate the overcrowding currently experienced in Guyana’s prisons and the subsequent inhumane conditions that arise from said overcrowding (see Ifill, 2019). However, these amendments have been with the National Assembly for years with little progress being made either way to solve the current cannabis conundrum. Although the new drug strategy proposes ‘offering treatment, rehabilitation, social reinsertion and recovery support services to drug-dependent criminal offenders as an alternative to criminal prosecution and imprisonment’, this approach is extremely costly. To treat someone at the Phoenix Recovery Project costs $60,000 a month compared to the $27,884 – $40,416 a month it costs to keep someone in prison without access to sufficient rehabilitative services and reintegration programmes, which also has an impact on reducing recidivism and relapse. Despite the new rehabilitative focus proposed by the new policy, treatment resources for drug use remain limited and costly. Therefore, if Guyana is to successfully achieve the aims set out in the current drug strategy these initiatives will not only need adequate funding, but also infrastructure, resources, staff and political support. Although drug courts are not without their criticisms, they pose a potentially preferable alternative to a custodial sentence in Guyana’s already over stretched prison system, which has been described as ‘harsh and potentially life threatening’ (USDS, 2017). Even though the debate surrounding the legal status of cannabis in Guyana continues and there is no clear indication if the custodial sentences will be removed for possession, while we await the results on the impact from the piloting of Drug Treatment Courts, there is clearly a new era in drugs policy emerging in the nation today.

Tammy Ayres is a Lecturer in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester, UK.

The author would like to thank Tiffany Barry (Head of Guyana Drug Information Network and NANA) for her comments and input on an earlier draft of this blog.

Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in Guyana

World Mental Health Day was first observed on 10 October 1992. At that time, globally, not only was mental illness commonly associated with social stigma, but it was often unhelpfully and sometimes dangerously elided with cognitive and developmental disabilities. In 1992, the authors of the ICD (the International Classification of Diseases, then just into its tenth edition) and the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, favoured in the United States, then awaiting its fourth edition) were beginning to understand that mental illness spans a range of multiaxial conditions that require nuanced clinical diagnoses. Both classification systems recognized that mental illness has an organic cause but is frequently exacerbated by environmental pressures.

World Mental Health Day, as it was conceived just over a quarter of a century ago, has been focused on raising consciousness about mental health and in ensuring mental illness is treated equally to physical disease. It has also provided a platform to urge governments to adopt policies that integrate individuals who have been or are being treated for mental health conditions into community life, rather than long-term hospitalization in often inadequate state or county facilities. At a time when Western nations, such as the United States, are witnessing more than 25% of its citizens being treated for diagnosable mental health conditions, and when a further 25% are likely to suffer from depression during the course of their lives, it is hard to know where to begin to deal with experiences that stem from multiple factors, some biological and others environmental.

The ICD was adopted in the Caribbean region as the official diagnostic manual by the Pan American Health Organization prior to the independence of many of its nation states. But, partly due to the colonial histories of the region, including a tense relationship with Western medicine, the topic of mental health has only emerged as a priority across the region in the last decade. During the 2010s, CARICOM governments and advocacy groups came to realize that heightened awareness is just part of the solution to what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls a “global health burden” that requires sustained funding, a robust healthcare infrastructure, and treatment courses that integrate drug interventions with person-centred therapy. In Guyana, where there are only 10 trained psychiatrists (3 of them newly graduated in autumn 2019) and limited hospital provision for mental health care (centred on Georgetown Public Hospital), and where mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders are prevalent among the nation’s prisoner population, this is a difficult task.

A starting point for the Guyanese government has been to increase funding for the Ministry of Public Health to ensure that its Mental Health Unit (formed in May 2016) has the physical infrastructure to identify, document, and consciousness-raise about mental health. Led by Dr Util Richmond-Thomas, the Mental Health Unit has used capital development funding (the mental health budget was $105 million Guyanese dollars in each of 2017 and 2018, compared to $17 million GYD in 2016, followed by $43 million GYD in 2019) to better integrate with social care services, to ensure that it is representative of Guyana’s rural regions, and to prioritise specific causes, such as the 2019 focus of World Mental Health Day on “Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention”. This theme dovetailed with World Suicide Prevention Day, which had its own dedicated date a month earlier, on 10 September, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in collaboration with WHO. While Dr Richmond-Thomas recognizes that only a coordinated effort will reduce the health burden of suicides in Guyana, numerous conversations during my two visits to Georgetown in April and September 2019 give me a sense of hope that the national health narrative is on the turn.

Self-harm and suicide rates in Guyana were one of the worst globally in 2017 and they have become a high priority for its Ministry of Public Health, set against the recognition that 79% of suicides occur in low- to middle-income countries (according to recent WHO statistics). Part of the solution is for citizens to feel that they can, without stigma or shame, ask for help in crisis situations, though social and gender coding means (as is the case in parts of the UK and US) that mental health challenges for men and boys often goes undetected until it reaches crisis point.

Another element of the solution is to try to reduce, if not eliminate, social isolation that many advocacy groups identify as the major cause of depression globally but is often a trigger for suicidal ideations. While no national healthcare or social services system is expansive enough to prevent all suicides, the fact that a high prevalence of cases occur in the rural regions of Guyana where access to health facilities is limited (particularly amongst farming communities, where a common means of suicide is the ingestion of agrochemicals), and that mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders are common in Guyana’s jails, are illustrations of the importance of such developments.

On World Suicide Prevention Day 2019, following a 500-person march through the streets of Georgetown, Util Richmond-Thomas delivered a powerful speech titled “Working Together to Prevent Suicides” at the National Cultural Centre, focusing on the complex interplay of factors that contribute to mental health challenges and the need for public-private partnerships to help promote anti-suicide messages. The statistics about the reduction in documented suicides in Guyana in 2018 are positive, reducing from 184 suicide-related deaths nationally in 2017 to 141 documented deaths from suicide in 2018 (according to Ministry of Public Health statistics) out of a population of 747,000. The success of reducing this prevalence was also evident in the awareness of the young Guyanese marchers on 10 September on their two-mile march through the streets of Georgetown. It was an uplifting experience for me, but I was left to wonder whether the message and resources are getting through to the 25% of Guyanese living in rural regions away from the Atlantic coastline.

Given that mental health challenges are part of the fabric of everyday life, only medical interventions via inpatient treatment or a course of prescribed drugs are easy to document and trace. Unless suicide has a clear cause it is also difficult to know if a more accessible health centre or more visible public health information in scattered communities or better job prospects would make a difference overall. The truth is that all these measures would help. As other countries have found, no single-step solution to tackling debilitating mental health conditions is likely to work in the long term, while drug interventions might only temporarily mask complex underlying issues.

There is a temptation to turn to faith for the answer to the despair that can sometimes leads to suicide. This faith can take lots of forms. It can be the faith of organized religion, which is particularly important for Guyana, a country in which 63% of its citizens (according to the 2012 Census) are Christian, 25% Hindu and 7% Muslim. It can be faith in a scripture or a faith in a community of believers, but it is important that it also a faith attuned to the complex socio-economic pressures that might sometimes strain against what these three great religions deem as right living. Or, on a secular level, it can be the faith that life goes on despite hardships, linked to the belief that all individuals can be agents of change, especially when they share and work collaboratively.

Reflecting on the 2019 Suicide Prevention Day March in Georgetown, I was particularly struck by a young University of Guyana student, Dwright Ward, studying in the Department of Communications, who proudly held the banner “You have the power to say this is not how my story will end!” I have looked at this photograph a number of times since that day – a bright young Guyanese student with a powerful message – and I have thought about both its cultural specificity and its transnational resonances because it puts into action the 2018 theme of “Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World”.

On that day of 10 September 2019, so many young Guyanese were willing to put hope and awareness over their studies and their work. This image offers hope for an open narrative that can help safeguard mental health, though it can never guarantee it. And the image offers a powerful symbol for a young nation that recognizes only a sustained, collaborative and multi-pronged approach will shift the dial on suicide prevention long term.

Guyana Inter-Agency Suicide Prevention Helpline: +592-600-7896, guyagency@yahoo.com

Martin Halliwell is Professor of American Studies and Head of the School of Arts, University of Leicester, UK. All photographs taken by the author.

Understanding the Challenges facing the Guyana Prison Service

Mellissa Ifill

The Guyana Prison Service does not attract much public acknowledgement, attention or scrutiny under normal circumstances. Great awareness of and discussion on the GPS occur only when something goes drastically wrong – and much has gone drastically wrong over the past two decades – these include prisoners escaping, rioting, protesting, setting fires (including one in 2016 Georgetown prison that resulted in the death of to 17 prisoners), attacking and sometimes killing prison officers and trafficking illegal items in prison. Additionally discussions about the conditions and nature of imprisonment usually only ensue in the aftermath of the preceding ‘gone wrongs’ or following high profile crimes. Despite this lack of continuous public attention, the Guyana Prison Service (GPS) has embarked upon a process to change from a mainly punitive to a mainly rehabilitative institution. This effort at transformation however has been difficult since the  security institution has been confronted with and has to address numerous systemic and historically derived deficiencies and challenges. The latter will be the subject of this blog post.

The Guyana Prison Service (GPS) was created under Section 4A of the Prison Act, Chapter 11:01, as a public authority, but the Act does not specify its essential functions. Notwithstanding this oversight, the GPS has an important function to perform in the criminal justice system. The main responsibility of the Guyana Prison Service as noted in its submission to the Disciplined Forces Commission (2004) is “to ensure the safe custody of the offenders who have violated the law of the land and are placed in physical confinement (Prisons) in order to protect the society”.  

As a corrective institution, the GPS has the dual responsibility of protecting society by creating secure incarceration arrangements while simultaneously engaging in activities and initiatives to facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into the society. This dual function is premised upon an inherited conventional notion of justice that views prisons as public liabilities/burdens rather than as an important tool in the societal transformation process and than can be used to generate economic resources while rehabilitating the offender.

Historically and in the contemporary era, the Guyana Prison Service has been unable to adequately fulfil this dual function of protecting the society and rehabilitating lawbreakers as it has continually been deficient, particularly in terms of financial resources, accommodation and qualified staff.

 Prison Conditions

Multiple reports over the past decades graphically underscore the depressing conditions in Guyana’s prisons. The United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices detail the ongoing crisis in the GPS. Confirming the dismal circumstances in Guyana’s prisons was a 2017 Citizen Security Strengthening Programme prison survey report that was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. These studies reaffirmed the findings of previous studies such as the 2001 Prison Reform Report that was conducted by the International Consultancy Group of the British Government Cabinet Office Centre for Management and Policy Studies; the Report of Board of Inquiry into the Escape of Five Prisoners from Georgetown Prison on February 23, 2002; The Guyana Prison Service 2001-2011 Strategic Development Plan; the Criminal Law Review Committee Report; The Report of the Disciplined Services Commission submitted to the National Assembly in May 2004; The 2009 Ministry of Home Affairs Review of the Guyana Prison Service.

The main concerns and problems highlighted in the aforementioned studies are:

  • Gross overcrowding which is inimical to rehabilitation and reintegration in society;
  • Inadequate security personnel, arrangements and equipment – i.e insufficient monitoring and warning mechanisms in the prisons;
  • Inhumane conditions in the prisons that both staff and prisoners have to endure;
  • Multiple violations of prisoners’ human rights;
  • Insufficient alternatives to incarceration offered by the criminal justice system.

Overcrowding & Inhumane Conditions

Guyana has six main prisons located in all three counties of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, one of which caters for female prisoners. These are Georgetown [which prior to the massive fire that razed the wooden buildings had an official capacity of 600], New Amsterdam (Male) that is designed to accommodate 275 individuals, New Amsterdam (Female) which has an official capacity of 75, Mazaruni which has an official capacity of 390, Lusignan which accommodates 120 and Timehri which was designed to cater for 90. The total official capacity for all six prisons prior to the fire was 1550. Overcrowding has always been a feature of the prison locations and the three largest prisons, Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam have been the most problematic, with the problems magnified in the former. At August 31, 2019, Guyana’s prisons housed 2099 prisoners.

  • New Amsterdam housed 477 – exceeding its male capacity by 133 and under its female capacity by 6;
  • Mazaruni (current under construction) housed 354 – under its capacity by 36;
  • Lusignan housed 147, exceeding capacity by 27;
  • Timehri housed 128, over its capacity by 38;
  • The remaining 993 prisoners are housed at Georgetown A & B locations which are still emergency housing arrangements that vastly exceed capacity. 

In the wake of the 2016 fire that razed the wood prison in Georgetown, overcrowding has worsened. Just under 1/3 of the prison population are currently housed in sheds in a field adjoining Lusignan Prison and these prisoners face an extremely harsh and inhumane existence including inadequate water and sanitation, poorly prepared meals; congested filthy blocks; some are forced to sleep on the floor others on filthy mattresses. Health care is inadequate and rehabilitative training or recreational activities are minimal to none. According to the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in its 2018 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Guyana, “Prison and jail conditions, particularly in police holding cells, were reportedly harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions.” Meanwhile the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent reported in 2017 that the conditions at the Lusignan Prison were horrific and that the cells were not suitable for human habitation. According to the report, prisoners complained of grossly unsanitary conditions including inadequate potable water, lengthy confinement in their cells with limited opportunities for sunlight.

Apart from convicted prisoners, a large numbers of remand prisoners awaiting trial are forced to live in these circumstances and their frustration can intensify as they face court delays, postponements and lockdowns for extensive periods since the prison system is understaffed. The preceding conditions not only violate the human rights of prisoners but they also force prison officials to work in insecure and dismal conditions and simultaneously place the security of both prisoners and officers at risk. Apart from Georgetown which is under construction, all the prisons are old; overcrowded with little space to institute comprehensive programmes to effectively rehabilitate prisoners, decaying physically, structurally insecure and in dire need of renovation or rebuilding. Altogether these circumstances have proven to be unsafe for both correctional officers and inmates alike. The newspaper headlines over the past two decades tell the story: Stabroek News February 25, 2010 “Public Safety…Inside Story: The problems of the Prison Service; Stabroek News February 7, 2010 “Fatal Prison Brawl …Inmate had Ranted about Killing Someone.”; Kaieteur News February 15, 2011 “Officers Fear Security Threat at Georgetown Prison”; Kaieteur News March 1, 2011 “Dwindling Prison Staff Will be Dire for Administration.”; Kaieteur News August 18, 2019 “Prison Service Understaffed, Overcrowding still an issue”; https://www.rt.com › World news Jul 10, 2017 “Inmates set fire to Guyana prison, 4 escape, 1 officer killed …”;

Police stand guard outside Georgetown Prison after a riot and fire at the facility in Georgetown, Guyana, Thursday, March 3, 2016. 17 prisoners died in the fire as they protested conditions inside the prison in the capital of the South American country, authorities said. (AP Photo/Bert Wilkinson)

Inadequate Staffing

In 2003, the authorised strength of the GPS was 452 while the number of officers employed was 369 which within the context of significant increase in the overall number of prisoners and in particular violent prisoners, endangers both officers and inmates (Disciplined Forces Commission Report 2004). In 2019, the GPS staff was just over 500 and it was short of staff by 101. Note also that the statistics hide the fact that many of the prison officers are women and civilian staff who do not secure the majority of male prisoners.

The Prison Act Chapter 11:01 requires that, “Every prison officer shall at all times carefully watch the prisoners and shall use the utmost vigilance to promote industry.” However, satisfying this condition is impossible in times when one prison warder has responsibility for three locations simultaneously.


The GPS noted as far back as 2003 that its greatest challenge to training officers is “recruiting … persons with the requisite qualifications/academic ability (Disciplined Forces Commission Report 2003, 251). This problem has persisted. Consequently, staff levels continue to be inadequate and prison officers are not properly trained to properly supervise the sizeable number of petty offenders who are given custodial sentences and the growing number of violent offenders. Security is further compromised with reports of widespread corruption, mismanagement, bribery, favouritism and dishonesty in the GPS. It is also reported that visitors pay prison officers to smuggle cell phones to family members in prison. Officers are also reported to sell marijuana directly to prisoners who in turn sell to other inmates. Raids conducted by the GPS always unearth contraband items that likely were brought into the prison by officers. Again, news reports tell the story: Guyana Standard June 19, 2019 “Prison officer allegedly caught with weed at Camp Street …” https://www.guyanastandard.com › Court; Demerara Waves October 25, 2016 “Female prison officer allegedly caught smuggling ganja inside the New Amsterdam Jail”; INews Guyana Mar 5, 2019 “Drugs, weapons seized in Lusignan Prison raid” https://www.inewsguyana.com › Crime.

Prohibited and illegal items found at the Lusignan Prison [Guyana Police Force photo Mar 5, 2019]

Prohibited and illegal items found at the Georgetown Prison [Guyana Police Force photo Dec. 8, 2018]

Reforming the Guyana Prison Service

While great attention has been placed on reforming law enforcement and the judicial system in Guyana, far less attention has been placed on comprehensive reform for correctional institutions and the penal system in general. The three systems, however, are inextricably connected within the criminal justice system and it is also necessary that sufficient attention be paid to the needs of the penal system.

Recommendations for improving the system that have emanated from the previously mentioned reports include:

  • Increasing the capacity, renovating and transforming the Mazaruni Prison to house high profile dangerous inmates;
  • Increasing staff levels and training to deal with increasing number of inmates;
  • Reviewing employment policies including salary structures to ensure qualified persons are employed and those that perform with distinction are promoted;
  • Auditing all prisoners, separating and accommodating them according to security need, audit and release remand prisoners in appropriate instances;
  • Create a manual that sets out security standards and procedures and create monitoring systems to oversee their implementation; 
  • Enhanced collaboration between the GPS, the GPF and the judiciary since the prisons are negatively affected by deficiencies in the court system.

Arising from these recommendations, the GPS has been targeted for reform and a number of initiatives have been undertaken, particularly over the past decade to transform the prison environment, improve professionalism among prison officers and employ more effective restoration and reintegration strategies. These include the:

  • Passage of the Prison (Amendment) Bill 2009 to modernise the prison service, enhance security within the prisons and offer increased protection for officers but which could contribute to further abuse of prisoners by prison officers; 
    • Separation of first time young offenders from hardened criminals;
    • Introduction and review of skills training and behavioural change programmes;
    • Conducting human rights training and other professional training programmes for recruits;
    • Establishment of a sentence management board to assist in the management of the sentences of convicted prisoners, including vulnerable prisoners or those suffering from any disabilities;
    • Establishment of Prison Visiting Committees which institutionalise civilian oversight of prisons, monitor the condition in prisons and seek to ensure the protection of inmates’ human rights;
    • Design of the Justice Reform Sector Programme which has placed emphasis on eliminating the backlog in both the civil and criminal cases, upgrading the court environment, digitising the court registries, training prosecutors and enhancing legislation and court procedures for Magistrates and Judges, training prosecutors and mediators in alternative sentencing systems to reduce the overcrowding in the prisons.

The transformation process has commenced but there is much, much more work to be done.

An historical perspective on Guyana’s jails

Clare Anderson

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the colonial administration of British Guiana managed over a dozen jails, three of which still stand today. These are: Camp Street (Georgetown), New Amsterdam, and Mazaruni. The history of prison building and incarceration in British Guiana was the focus of a recently completed project, funded by the British Academy and conducted by researchers from the University of Guyana and the University of Leicester. The project asked questions about the role of prisons in the colonial justice system, and about historical patterns and experiences of imprisonment. It sought to find out whether history can offer lessons from the past that might be useful for understanding jails today.

HMPS Mazaruni, 19th century

The project team comprised myself and Dr Kellie Moss (Leicester) and Dr Mellissa Ifill and Estherine Adams (Guyana). Together, we undertook extensive research on colonial-era records held in our respective national archives, where we discovered a rich history of continuity and change. We found that colonial prison administrators kept coming back to the question ‘what is prison for?’ From that stemmed near-continual discussion of the same topics. These included the desirability of the separate treatment of different kinds of offenders (and adults and juveniles); the role of religion in rehabilitation; the deficiencies of prison infrastructure; prison security and escape; the morale of prison officers; and the education and training of inmates.

We presented some of our research to a group of serving prison officers, in autumn 2018, and had the opportunity to visit Mazaruni and New Amsterdam. Three things became immediately apparent. First, a great deal of colonial-era infrastructure survives today. Second, at least some of the daily rhythms of incarceration (including modern prison regulations) date from the British period. Third, there remain many parallels between the past and the present, regarding the active debate of exactly those issues that were discussed in the past.

Estherine Adams and Kellie Moss, project workshop, Georgetown, November 2018

New Amsterdam and Georgetown Prisons are the oldest operating prisons in Guyana. They were built by the Dutch, and extended by the British after they took control of the colony in 1814. Later, in 1843, the British constructed Her Majesty’s Penal Settlement (HMPS) Mazaruni, near Berbice. They also built numerous other district prisons, along with several ‘lock-ups’ in the more remote regions. The government of Guyana built the other two modern institutions, Timehri and Lusignan, following Independence in 1966.

The project found that the history of Guyana’s jails is intertwined with the history of colonialism, notably enslavement, immigration, and population management. During the era of slavery, the owners of enslaved persons punished their human property for what they perceived as labour infractions or ill-discipline, often using extremely brutal measures. After emancipation, the colonial state took on this role, and this was the background to the development of prisons in the 1830s and 1840s. The British imprisoned emancipated slaves and others, including Asian indentured labourers, for a range of offences. These included crimes against property, but also what they called ‘idleness’, and breaches of harsh labour laws, including unauthorised absence from home or work.

Indentured Indian sugar workers, early 20th century

The project also discovered that the architectural design of and daily regimes instituted in Guyana’s prisons were strongly influenced by changing European and American thinking about their ideal form and function. The British adapted and built jails according to ‘modern’ prison design. Ideally, prisoners would occupy individual cells, and they would be punished and rehabilitated through a programme of education, work, training and Christian instruction. One notable feature of nineteenth-century punishment was the use of prisoners in colonial building projects. Inmates built and repaired streets and pavements, and constructed parts of the Sea Wall – in the latter case including through the draft of prisoners from Mazaruni to Georgetown. However, despite Britain’s claim to penal ‘modernity’, prisons could be violent places in which prisoners were chained, flogged or placed on harsh rations. Georgetown prison even had a treadmill, which constituted an extreme form of physical punishment.

Mazaruni Prison, 2017. Photograph: Obrey James.

From the very earliest days, where there were efforts to reform and rehabilitate prisoners, they were often frustrated by a lack of resource and difficulties in recruiting guards and other personnel. In large part, these failures reflected the fact that the British never came to a firm conclusion on the rationale for incarceration. Rather, jails always served a variety of purposes, and these were often incompatible with each other. For example, though the British wanted to use jails for different types of offenders, the pressure of numbers meant that prisoners were often transferred to inappropriate locations, and this put a strain on prisoner training, education and work. Also, guards often left employment, or retired early, due to stress and overwork. There even erupted various scandals where it emerged that guards had violently beaten and mistreated prisoners. This led to the establishment of a Board of Prisons in 1862, and the appointment of an Inspector General of Prisons from 1879. These measures increased government regulation over prisons, and enabled some positive interventions such as the introduction of tickets-of-leave (or what we would now call probation), which helped to rehabilitate and resettle inmates.

Several other themes emerged during our research project, notably regarding the mental health of inmates and guards. For example, we found archives that suggested that historically there was excessive consumption of alcohol (by inmates and guards), and that inmates routinely smoked marijuana. We also discovered that some prisoners hallucinated or had delusions, became suicidal, or were transferred to the ‘lunatic asylum’ in New Amsterdam. This led the research team to develop a more focused project, with the goal of exploring issues around the prevalence of mental, neurological, and substance abuse (MNS) disorders in Guyana’s jails. A collaboration between the universities of Leicester and Guyana, in partnership with the Guyana Prison Service and HMP Leicester, this project is both historical and contemporary. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, it will run until the autumn of 2021.

Social scientists know that attention to the relationship between lives and environments, and the production of an evidence base, are vital for successful research impact in a field now known as ‘global mental health’. As well as understanding individual health, we need to be sensitive to history, society and culture. Recently, researchers have argued that western concepts and models of MNS disorders require refinement, so that they do not produce misconceived diagnosis or become neo-colonial in their application of knowledge on a problem defined in the West. Our earlier historical research, against the background of this concern, forms the background to our new project.

The project team, University of Guyana, April 2019 – from left, Di Levine, Queenela Cameron, Deborah Toner, Clare Anderson, Dylan Kerrigan, Martin Halliwell, Estherine Adams, Shammane Joseph Jackson, Kellie Moss, Kristy Warren. Photograph: Mellissa Ifill.

The historians on the team, now including also Shammane Joseph Jackson and Dr Deborah Toner, are returning to the archives. Our team of anthropologists, criminologists, political scientists, and sociologists – Dr Tammy Ayres, Queenela Cameron, Professor Martin Halliwell, Dr Dylan Kerrigan, Di Levine and Dr Kristy Warren – are currently examining modern records and undertaking interviews, and will be running focus group workshops, with prisoners, prison officers, and prisoners’ families. Some of the things we want to find out about are how different communities – and men, women and youths – define/ defined and experience/ experienced MNS disorders; what constitutes/ constituted MNS disorders management and welfare provision; and how Empire and Independence impacted on prevalence, representations and experiences.

We want to see if it is possible to connect present-day challenges associated with MNS disorders to the history and legacies of the British Empire in Guyana. Our hypothesis is that the existence of MNS disorders in jails today can be traced back to the British colonial period. Thus, they cannot be disconnected from the country’s history as a sugar colony that employed and controlled indigenous people (Amerindians), enslaved Africans, and indentured labourers. We hypothesize that Empire created particular forms of trauma, shaped demography and religious practice, and instituted patterns of population control including through the building of jails. We seek to render this history actively part of the process of change today, by connecting new historical work to new research in and around prisons in Guyana today.

Clare Anderson is Principal Investigator of the ESRC GCRF project Mental Health, Neurological and Substance Abuse Disorders in Guyana’s Jails, 1825 to the present day.