Mental Health and Covid-19 Protocols in Guyana’s Prisons

By Queenela Cameron

Interviews conducted at the Georgetown and Lusignan prisons in 2019 as part of a collaborative research on the topic of “Mental, Neurological and Substance Abuse disorders in Guyana’s Jails – 1825 to the Present Day” revealed that a number of mental health challenges (diagnosed and undiagnosed) are experienced by both prisoners and prison staff, with depression seeming to be the dominant one. Depression in the context of Guyana’s prisons, is exacerbated by several factors; limited recreational activities, poor or limited work and education rehabilitation programmes, and an absence of, or limited contact with family members to name a few.

Lusignan Prison 2019

The Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken (from March 2020 to early January of this year) to prevent and manage its spread in the prison environment, played additional roles in further alienating prisoners from the already limited activities which aim to contribute to their rehabilitation. It stands to reason, that an absence/suspension of these activities and programs (for approximately two years) as well as the pandemic itself, likely intensified feelings of stress and depression amongst prisoners.  Prison staff who too were subjected to strict Covid-19 guidelines including prolonged periods of confinement in the prison environment likely experienced increased levels of stress on their mental well-being.

Among the measures taken was the suspension of all religious activities and training programs within the prison. One of the key findings unearthed during the interviews conducted in 2019, revealed that religion is one of the biggest coping mechanisms utilized by prisoners, as attending religious services gives them comfort and relieves feelings of stress, depression and hopelessness. These findings are not unique to Guyana’s prison environment, as several studies conducted in other jurisdictions point to the effectiveness of religion in positively impacting the mental health of prisoners. Bradshaw and Ellison 2010, and Ellison et al, 2008 for instance, note that “Participation in religious activities can impact inmate mental health by promoting social support. Attendance at religious services has consistently been shown to be protective against mental distress.” 

The suspension of this vital stress-reliever and depression-combatant implies that many prisoners were likely to become withdrawn, easily agitated, disruptive, fight amongst themselves, experience appetite loss, and harbour escape and/or suicidal thoughts.

Given that the number of daily Covid-19 positive cases, both outside of and inside of the prison contexts of Guyana has drastically reduced from its peak of 1,558 on January 17 of this year to 5 cases as at March 25, 2022 (WHO), and also given that there is already inadequate mental help support in the form of counselling and therapy for convicted prisoners and that no such service exists for prisoners on remand, it is recommended that religious activities should be resumed, albeit in the contexts of social-distancing, sanitizing and mask-wearing guidelines. Conscious of the limited spacing available for religious worship due to massive overcrowding, small groups could be accommodated at various intervals in order to fulfil the right of prisoners to religious engagements which is vital to prisoners’ mental well-being as well as their rehabilitation.

With respect to training activities, those too were suspended for approximately two-years. However, between January 12 and 15 of this year, all of the Guyana dailies and Newscasts reported that 861 prisoners housed at the various prisons graduated in what is being referred to as “ground-breaking” training courses offered at the various prisons. The programs, prison officials’ note, aim to prepare inmates for life outside of the prison and to assist with their reintegration into society. The inmates had the opportunity to participate in a number of different training areas such as entrepreneurship, anger management, carpentry and joinery, family reconciliation, tailoring, culinary arts, art and craft, cosmetology, barbering, crops husbandry and veterinary sciences. The courses were extended to all prisoners including those on remand and also those who were convicted with several high-profile and special watch inmates taking the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves with the courses. (HGP Nightly News. January 15, 2022). Further, the “Fresh-start” program launched just last month by the Guyana Prison Service with similar programs and more, are all aimed at preparing prisoners for productive life outside of prison. (Stabroek News. February 18, 2022)

These programs must be commended for their role in fostering prisoners’ rehabilitation and likely reducing rates of recidivism as “the impact of education goes well beyond the walls of the prisons themselves, extending into the home communities of the incarcerated.” (North Western University Prison Education Program). Their importance in assisting the mental health of prisoners whose time would have been more than likely spent on unproductive activities which contribute to depression, anxiety, stress and other mental ailments cannot be overstated. Further, the inclusion of these programs to prisoners on remand must also be applauded for its progressiveness given that the current laws do not extend those privileges to remand prisoners, many of whom sometimes spend several idle years behind bars before sentencing or release.

Another of the measures taken was the suspension of the (external) work rehabilitation program. Prior to the pandemic, some prisoners were able to capitalize on work rehabilitation programs which not only helped in the provision of financial resources for them to supplement their prison-provided supplies, but also contributed to their families’ upkeep, occupied their time, helped provide meaning in their lives by providing them with something to focus on, and prepared them for post-prison productive life. North Western University Prison Education Program notes that work rehabilitation aids in preparing prisoners for life outside of prison as “reentry is far smoother and more successful for those who took classes in prison, especially insofar as gainful employment is one of the defining features of successful reentry.” The suspension of this privilege likely impacted the mental health of prisoners in a negative way.  Existing literature suggests that “inmate boredom caused by the lack of work and absence of recreational activities could be linked to depression and aggressive behavior.” (Tartoro and Leaster, 2009). Such behaviors could spread among the prison population thereby leading to prison riots, fires etc., all of which could make the work more challenging for an already thinly-stretched and over-worked prison staff.

The suspension of family visits was another measure implemented to prevent and manage the Covid-19 pandemic in Guyana’s prison setting. During the interview sessions with prisoners in 2019, many bemoaned the lack of/limited visits form their family members, while others were in praise for supportive family members who visit often and supplement their supplies. The complete removal of this social support privilege (though replaced by electronic means using the “Google Hangouts app” and/or telephone) likely increased feelings of depression and other mental health issues amongst prisoners. De. Claire Dixon, 2015 notes that “Visits help offenders to maintain contact with the outside world, promoting successful reintegration back into society and reducing recidivism. This scarcity of social support might make adjustment to prison more difficult, risking the use of maladaptive coping strategies.”

A further measure taken was the suspension of actual (face-to-face) court hearings, and the establishment of virtual courtrooms. While this measure must be lauded for its role in respecting the rights of prisoners to a trial within a reasonable time period as well as the possible reduction of time spent on remand, the positive mental-health benefits of actually leaving the confines of the prison environment for a trip (however temporary), to be in a setting with non-prisoners, to perhaps have a moment to socially interact with family members and their attorney, cannot be ignored.

While most of these measures impacted prisoners, their impact on the mental-health of prison staff cannot be ignored. Prison Officers were already in-line due to the prolonged March 2020 elections and they were forced to remain in-line (for time frames as long as two weeks) as a precaution against bringing the virus into the prison environment.  Devoid of the vital social interaction of family, being forced to work long hours in an overcrowded setting in the face of a massive human resource deficit, fearful of contracting a deadly virus in the contexts of agitated, violent, dangerous and scared prisoners are all factors which likely intensified the stress levels of prison staff.

It should be recalled that a number of undiagnosed prisoners, specifically those on remand, complained of experiencing bouts of depression and anxiety as a result of their incarceration. They also bemoaned the absence of competent mental health personnel on whom they could unburden themselves. Similar sentiments were expressed by officers and other prison staff who, like most prisoners, also use religion as a coping mechanism.

In light of the foregoing, and in the context of the almost- completed “modern” prison and proposed new prison headquarters at Lusignan, it is hoped that this facility would be equipped with a modern mental health facility and staffed by competent metal-health personnel, including therapists and counselors to assist prisoners (including remand prisoners who do not benefit from existing arrangements) and prison staff.

Such facility would greatly augment prisoners’ rehabilitation, prepare them for life outside of prison and ultimately reduce the rates of recidivism. For Prisons Officers and other staff, working in both one-on-one and group sessions with a therapist could help them cope with the challenges associated with a highly stressful, time-consuming, low-paying, and sometimes under-valued profession.

Historicising the Camp Street Commission of 2016: colonial-era prison inquiries in British Guiana

On 2 March 2016, unrest broke out in Guyana’s oldest and largest prison, Camp Street in Georgetown. Prisoners set fires, leading to the death of seventeen inmates and the partial destruction of the facility. The day after order was restored, President David A. Granger ordered the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry. Inmates had released video footage from inside the prison, blaming individual officers for events, and alleging that they had been locked in their cells and left to die. Granger thus directed the Commission to report on the ‘causes, circumstances, and conditions’ of events, to establish the nature of the prisoners’ injuries, to assess whether the staff of the Guyana Prison Service had followed correct procedure, and to determine whether the inmates’ deaths were caused by the ‘negligence, abandonment of duty, disregard of instructions, [or] inaction of the Prison Officers’. He also ordered it to make recommendations necessary to secure the future safety of the prison.

The commissioners undertook an expansive investigation, visiting the prison and interviewing numerous witnesses. They concluded that ultimately inmates themselves were responsible for the deaths, because in the intense heat prison officers had been unable to open cell doors. However, they also laid the blame on ‘a myriad of institutional deficiencies’ that were products of Guyana’s punitive attitude to crime and public apathy about prison conditions. The Commission described the huge backlog of court cases, which meant that at the time of the fire two thirds of inmates in Camp Street were on remand, with the prison at 184 per cent capacity. It noted that these delays were in part a consequence of the courts’ under-use of defendants’ constitutional right to bail, but that overcrowding generally was also the result of harsh sentencing policy, including for relatively minor drugs-related offences. Further, the Commission blamed the system of preliminary inquiries, the lengthy pre-trial process of gathering oral evidence, which slowed the progress of cases through the courts.

Cover page of the 2016 Camp Street Commission

Its recommendations for the Guyana Prison Service included enhanced training for officers, greater attention to inmate welfare, and the development of infrastructure. For the judiciary and magistracy, it advised more routine granting of bail, and the abolition of minimum sentences, the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use, alternatives to custody for petty drugs-related offences, and greater attention to proportionality in sentencing. Finally, it highlighted the desirability of a publicity campaign to address punitive attitudes and educate the public about the importance of rehabilitation.

The 2016 Commission of Inquiry was by no means the first investigation into prisons in Guyana. Indeed, such commissions have a long history, and date from the British colonial era. Commissions were appointed and instructed by the governor, and they had the right to call witnesses and take evidence on oath. Commissioners reported to the legislative council, which discussed their findings and could pass resolutions. Following Independence in 1966, this practice (as codified in a 1933 Act) was incorporated into Guyana’s constitution. Whereas during the British period, the governor was responsible for instigating enquiries, after 1966 this power became the gift of the nation’s president. There are other procedural continuities between the colonial and modern periods. Then as now, commissions are independent of government, and charged with establishing and regulating their own procedures. Whilst previously the British announced commissions in a special supplement of colony’s official newspaper, The Royal Gazette, today they appear in Guyana’s The Official Gazette.

The first prison commission that I have been able to locate in the archives took place in 1847. It was focused on Mazaruni, as were the majority of the inquiries of the colonial period – a 1906 inquiry into Georgetown is the key exception. This was probably due to Mazaruni’s remote location, which at the time was seen as the cause of the allegations of violence, cruelty and corruption that surfaced periodically. Since Independence there have been further commissions, again centred on Mazaruni and Georgetown, but also on New Amsterdam and Lusignan. In sum, I have found evidence that there have been a dozen commissions into prisons since 1847. Given the fragmented nature of the archives (not all documents survive) there may have been more.

Together, these inquiries – including interviews with British and Guyanese personnel, and inmates – tell us quite a lot about ideas about punishment and rehabilitation. Where commissions published summaries of interviews with prisoners and front-line personnel, they also enable rare glimpses of the experiences of ordinary Guyanese, and in particular of the nature of everyday life in jail. Witness statements were taken formally and verbally. During the colonial era, where an individual was the subject of an inquiry (e.g., when a British officer was accused of violence), they were present at cross-examinations and allowed to ask questions. Though in law inquiries were not judicial trials, they certainly mirrored their form.

Reading archives of prison inquiries against our knowledge of present-day practice leads us to ask certain questions. Historically, were commissions an effective tool of governance? To what extent did they address crisis and controversy, rather than structural or deep-seated issues? Did they legitimize state authority and maintain colonial interests rather than push for change? To help to think these issues through, let us explore some historic examples.

The 1847 commission that I mentioned above was set up to investigate an alleged plot by inmates to murder the superintendent, poison the guards, and set fire to the buildings, against a background of widespread social unrest following a dramatic drop in wages in the years after emancipation. The Commission did not contextualise events at Mazaruni, or connect the colony’s jail building programme to the end of enslavement, but instead resolved only to open negotiations on the establishment of a military post nearby, to enhance security.

A second inquiry of 1848, again at Mazaruni, was ordered in the aftermath of the deaths of twelve inmates, due to the violence and neglect of the medical officer. He fled, and though the inquiry took evidence, and a warrant was issued for his arrest, the legal process against him could not begin in his absence, and there were no changes to prison management as a consequence. These were put in place only in 1854 and 1855, following the removal of a second medical officer from Mazaruni, for frequent drunkenness. The most important stimulus to change here, however, was not the inquiry itself, but simultaneous Colonial Office pressure on the colony to bring jail rules and regulations into line with those in place in Britain. (That did not happen, though there were some minor alterations).

Printed for the Colonial Office – the 1872 report

The biggest changes came in the 1870s, when a request was sent to the governor, asking for a change in practice in medical postings at Mazaruni, alongside extensive details of the prior history of the site. The issue was referred to the colonial secretary, the 1st Earl of Kimberley, and referring to previous ‘abuses and cruelties’, he expressed regret that Mazaruni was still open. A new commission was set up, and this made various recommendations about the rotation of officers and the building of better officer accommodation. Backed by London, these were put into force. If the picture of change and continuity is somewhat variegated in the colonial past, how about the outcomes of prison commissions since Independence, and particularly that of 2016?

Almost five years on, the Commission does seem to have catalysed the construction of new accommodation at Camp Street, as well as at Mazaruni, though neither is yet open. Work on better officer training is underway, and there has been a little movement in regard to issues such as the granting of bail or the abolition of minimum sentences, particularly to address overcrowding in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country is now also experimenting with the use of a separate Drug Treatment Court. Until the new facilities are open, however, the Guyana Prison Service cannot properly address the key issue highlighted by the Commission: overcrowding. Bodies such as the Inter-American Development Bank are now working towards a reduction in the prison population across the Caribbean. Whether these initiatives are enough to reduce punitive public attitudes remains to be seen. Certainly, evidence-based research, such as that generated through the MNS Guyana project, can only assist in that endeavour.

Author’s acknowledgement: Thanks to Kellie Moss for photographing the 1872 report, and Mellissa Ifill for comments on an earlier draft.

Prison Conversations

Queenela Cameron

I never had cause to visit a prison. In fact, my only experience with the penal system was through visits to a nearby police station to take a meal for, or to offer support to a friend or relative detained for some minor infraction which did not require lengthy incarceration.

This situation changed for me when I became involved as Research Assistant on a University of Leicester-University of Guyana research project titled “MNS disorders in Guyana’s jails, 1825 to the present day,” which seeks to determine the definition, extent, experience and treatment of mental, neurological and substance abuse (MNS) disorders in Guyana’s jails: both among inmates and the people who work with them.

This blog offers a glimpse of my journey into prison research and the impact of this journey on my own personal awareness of the problems of incarceration.

A UK-based colleague with Trinidadian roots, Dr. Dylan Kerrigan and I were tasked with conducting interviews with prisoners housed at the Georgetown (Camp Street) and the Lusignan Prisons, in which a number of themes were explored including area/s of residency prior to incarceration, family life, education, childhood experiences, employment, reason for incarceration, experiences in prison life, hope for the future and so on. Twenty such interviews were conducted between the two prisons and included respondents that were clinically diagnosed with a MNS disorder and others who were not.

Prison security is “tight.” Once the reason for your visit is ascertained and accepted, everyone is then searched for prohibited substances and articles. I observed, how diligently and professionally the officers carried out this function. I recall observing a staff attached to an external janitorial company being refused further access to the facility after he refused to have his footwear searched. We were also required to lodge our handbag and backpack along with their contents (cell phones, money etc.) at the security hut; only writing materials, a voice recorder and other requisite paperwork were we allowed to take to the interviews.

 Lusignan Prison was built after independence, on the grounds and land of a former plantation hospital that today is also a current landfill and rubbish dump. The prison compound is however well-kept. One of the prisoners interviewed took credit for the well put-together flower garden located at the front of the prison. Most of the buildings are wooden structures; old and dilapidated and in dire need of repairs if not complete demolition.

Photograph of Lusignan Prison Walls, by Professor Martin Halliwell, University of Leicester.

One of the things that struck me on my first day at the Lusignan Prison was its tranquility. There was a hum, but it was heard only when you actually focused on it.  I think I was expecting that a facility in which hundreds of men are housed to be noisier; with chatter or laughter, or arguments. Prisoners in the prison yard also moved about quietly and purposefully and were always polite to us.

By day three, word must have gotten around about the nature of our research. On our way to the Chapel they (prisoners) would call out to us, some would request to be interviewed, some perhaps just happy to see two different faces which were becoming familiar to them.

The prison Welfare Officer was the personnel at Lusignan who organized and supervised our interviews with the prisoners. She was professional and courteous, and also happened to be a former student of mine. She would escort us to the Chapel which is almost always occupied with prisoners who had just concluded church services. The worshippers were always eager to assist with setting up the seating arrangements to our satisfaction and comfort.

Most of the prisoners, except for perhaps one, volunteered to be interviewed. We sought to understand the history and background of the prisoners; specifically, information which related to their early life; family, neighbourhood, education and employment. We also sought to ascertain the reason for their detention/incarceration, how they cope with prison life, their history of substance use and/or abuse both outside of and in prison, their mental health, views of themselves and society and their plans after release. The data obtained from the interviews was in some ways predictable, but it was also surprising, intriguing, shocking, and encouraging to me as a free individual.

Predictably, most of the prisoners interviewed were Afro Guyanese and followed sharply by Indo Guyanese. Mixed-race respondents followed and there was a tiny percentage that was indigenous Guyanese. The majority came from economically and socially depressed communities in Georgetown. There was also one Indigenous respondent who hailed all the way from Lethem, Region 9.

 In addition to their community of origin, many of the prisoners came from families of predominantly single-parent households with absent fathers in most instances, and many siblings. In several cases, children were raised by grandparents and or other relatives when parents were either working away from home, or in the event of death of the parents, or due to their parents’ inability to provide for them. Additionally, most of those interviewed were school drop-outs, some at the primary and others at the secondary level. Many never wrote or got the chance to write the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) examinations and thus lacked the basic requirements for clerical employment and higher education. Many sought unskilled work in areas such as in construction, others became mini bus conductors and peddlers in order to assist the family. Some started selling and/or using drugs; predominantly marijuana, while some got into trouble with the law after getting involved in crimes such as robbery; theft of phones, handbags break-and-enter etc. These socio-economic findings are regarded as “predictable” because the literature is replete with similar findings in the context of developed as well as developing countries.

Despite these, there was at least one prisoner who grew up in a financially well-off nuclear family in an economically vibrant community and is highly educated in the medical field. There was also one who studied at an overseas university for a while before quitting and one who is an educated sports umpire.

The vast majority of prisoners we spoke with were at the time on remand and were awaiting trial. The reasons for prisoners’ incarceration were many, but the charges of murder, manslaughter and assault stood out. A few of the murders were allegedly committed while drunk or high on narcotics, and a similar pattern was observed with the assault-related offenses. One (educated) prisoner decried the fact that he was sentenced for physically assaulting his wife while drunk. For him, it was a personal issue, and should have been dealt with in the domain of the home. (I still hope that the shock I felt at that position did not register on my face.) Most felt that being a man meant that they were the dominant partner in relationships (of marriage and the family) and see their role as that of providers. Being a man means acting like a man; tough and masculine. These positions are historical legacies of colonialism with respect to hierarchy, masculinity, gender and gender roles, and remain largely intact even today, both in and out of prison in Guyana.

A small number of prisoners were detained for drug-related offenses and some for robbery and theft. Many (especially murder accused) decried the lengthy time it took for their cases to be heard, and said they were receiving little information regarding their case. The Welfare Officer said that such information is always provided to prisoners.

Life in prison is boring for the vast majority of prisoners. Most argue that they don’t do much per day, passing the time reading (the Bible especially), sleeping or interacting with fellow cell or dorm mates. Some work in the kitchen preparing meals, others in the store, in the prison garden, or on the prison farm, others clean the grounds. At scheduled times, batches of prisoners are allowed to play sports in the prison yard. Cricket is one such games played at Lusignan. The prisoner with umpiring experience told us with pride and happiness, that he umpired some cricket matches which helped to lift his spirit. We also noticed some prisoners exercising in a very basic gym located on the ground floor a few feet away from the Chapel, while others played dominoes. Some prisoners are able to work for wages, outside of prison mostly in the area of construction or on farms. Employment provides them with the opportunity to assist their families financially, and also to provide themselves with additional sanitary and other supplies.

 The majority of prisoners we interviewed are highly religious; predominantly Evangelical Christians, and attend church services frequently to pass the time. One respondent said he practices Hinduism on the outside, but would attend church services at times to help him cope with the stress of prison. Islam is also practiced at the Lusignan Prisons, and a separate space is provided for this purpose. Religion thus appeared to be one of if not the best coping mechanisms utilized by most prisoners. Almost every interviewed prisoner said that they are trusting God for his favour in terms of early trial, early release, light sentencing or even dismissal of their case. Even those against whom evidence seems stacked high remain optimistic that God will see them through. Apart from being an excellent coping mechanism, religious practice carries incentives to prisoners as attending religious services coupled with good behaviour aid in sentence commutation which translates to early release. Prisoners are not the only ones who lean on religion to cope. Some prison staff whom we spoke with informally also relied heavily on religion to help them deal with the pressures of work in the prison setting. One prison staff remarked that she talks to, and relies on her Jesus for strength in times of stress as there is no institutional mental health support for staff.

For most prisoners interviewed, cigarettes and marijuana have also been regarded as excellent items which aid in making life easier for prisoners. As a matter of fact, many said that they used either or both substances prior to incarceration. Prisoners including orderlies said that these two items have a calming effect on prisoners as they tend to sleep or lie quietly in their cell after using said items. This makes the job easier especially for prison officers as conflicts amongst prisoners (which require greater supervision) are drastically reduced.  I suspect that this is perhaps one reason why prison officers turn a blind eye to marijuana smuggling and cigarette and use in prison although marijuana is an illegal and prohibited drug.

Most prisoners said that they have never witnessed the presence, or use of crack or cocaine in prison. It is almost the same for alcohol, although media coverage highlighted this in the past. A few of the prisoners interviewed were alcohol users or perhaps abusers prior to incarceration. In fact, some are in prison because of violent inter-personal crimes committed while intoxicated. Though alcohol is not popular in prison, there have been instances of prisoners making home-made or prison-made wine called “kushung peng,” also a prohibited substance. This wine is made from the skin of fruits and vegetables which are soaked for approximately two weeks. One Prison Officer in an informal conversation noted that the making of this wine is prohibited especially because of its effect (temporary) on the behavior of some prisoners. Some of the prisoners’ exhibit violent behavior towards other prisoners, some become psychotic; claiming to see spirits or hear voices, while some become loud and disruptive. These behaviours make the work of prison officials more challenging.  

Some of the prisoners (approximately half) interviewed were clinically diagnosed with a mental health condition. These conditions include depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, stress, compulsive lying and anxiety. One claimed to be a lion, and roared a few times for us. Another said he laughs out loudly at times, and because of this, persons seem to think that he is crazy. Some prisoners bang their heads against the cell walls while others almost never speak to anyone.  At least one prisoner reported that one of his deceased parents had mental health condition, a trait he might have inherited. All of the prisoners interviewed complained of feeling depressed regularly. There was one prisoner that exhibited symptoms of multiple personality disorder who claimed to have been physically abused by his father for displaying “girly” (feminine) behavior and entered a life of petty crime to prove his masculinity. This trauma perhaps contributed largely to his illness and might be responsible for his incarceration.

Most of the clinically diagnosed prisoners are housed in the “Chalet” (a space in prison dedicated to inmates with mental health condition/s) of the prison. All of these prisoners are patients of Guyana’s renowned psychiatrist Dr. Bhiro Harry who makes frequent scheduled visits to the Chalet. Tables are given to some inmates, while injections are administered to others. Some complain that the medications (especially the injection) have a negative effective on them, causing them to drool and feel lethargic. Others complain that the tablets make them sleep a lot. There was one inmate who praised Dr. Harry for finding the correct medication and dosage for his many mental health conditions, and plan to continue in the doctor’s clinic when released.  Of note is the fact that some of the diagnosed prisoners denied having a mental health condition. This could be attributed to the historical and continuing stigma attached to mental illness in Guyana, ignorance, or perhaps shame.

Some of these prisoners claimed to have experienced para normal activities in prison. Some said they have seen evil spirits and heard footsteps that turn out to be no one. One prisoner said that he was constantly tormented by a renowned ghost at the Mazaruni Prison. He said he begged to be transferred because of this, but continued to have the same experience at the Lusignan facility. Others claimed to have had sexual encounters with the beautiful spirits in their dreams who leave them “hanging.” There was one prisoner who suffers from epilepsy, and thinks that his condition could be helped if he gets to visit Suriname for “spiritual” healing because for him, his condition is not medical/neurological.

A small percentage of the prisoners said that they participated in the Anger Management Program. This program appears to combine religious teachings in its curriculum/application and is lauded by those who participated in it as a good initiative which aids in self-control.

Most of Guyana’s prisons seem to be overcrowded. This was exacerbated by the 2017 fire at the Georgetown Prison which destroyed several buildings including dormitories and cells, and resulted in the transfer of hundreds of prisoners to Lusignan. Some prisoners are therefore forced to live in cramped cells, at times having to share a single-mattress with another cell mate. One prisoner bemoaned the fact that some are forced to sleep in very close proximity to the toilet facility which is both unhealthy and inhumane. Concerns were also expressed about the lack of privacy one has when answering to calls of nature or taking a shower as the bathroom stalls are not equipped with doors or curtains. Food complaints were few, though at least one prisoner complained of needing larger portions.

Most prisoners regard many of the Prison Officers as “alright” or good people who don’t mistreat them. Violence towards prisoners by Prison Officers appear to be rare, and is utilized against prisoners who are extremely disruptive or violent towards each other. Similarly, the prisoners noted that there are not much prisoner to prisoner violence in the prison itself. Many of the news stories of violence and death at the Lusignan facility tend to take place in the holding bay; a make-shift facility erected at the back of the compound to house prisoners on remand.

For some prisoners, more televisions along with sports channels would make prison life a bit more bearable. The need to greater access to marijuana and cigarette to a lesser extent, seem to be the biggest desire for prisoners’ comfort. Marijuana is an illegal substance in Guyana which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Despite this, most prisoners made it clear that they shall not stop its use in or out of prison.

Many miss their families and long to be reunited with them. For some, their relationship with family (especially their spouses) has suffered as a result of their prolonged detention. Some expressed their gratitude for the visits and material support offered by family members, a few lamented the lack of care and compassion given the absence of visits or any other form of support from family members, while at least one prefers that his family members not visit him at the facility in the interest of their safety.

Many prisoners seem optimistic that they’d be released from prison soon. Most place their faith and trust in God realize this dream even when the evidence seems stacked against them. While most claim to be innocent of all charges, there were a few who admitted culpability for their actions and pledged to lead a more productive and law-abiding post-prison life.

Life outside of prison might prove challenging for a few prisoners who claimed to be homeless with relatives unable but more so unwilling to house them, even temporarily. At least one prisoner expressed the need for temporary housing for former prisoners until they get back on their feet.

The position of one man accused of murder whom I recognized form being on the news, and who claimed to not recall the reason for his incarceration intrigued me. He said he does not wish to be released from prison; that he prefers to remain incarcerated. We tried to determine why this was so, but he refused to provide us with a response. I think that the combination of shame for his actions and fear of retribution by the family and community of his victim have made prison a safer place for him.

We sought some advice from prisoners before we concluded most of our interviews with them. The resounding advice revolved around the need for us to stay out of trouble to avoid incarceration; an advice well received.

The experience with prison interviews and prisoners have left lasting impressions on me as a free individual. I have a new-found respect for the capacity of humans to be resilient in the face of insurmountable challenges. Being confined in a small space with complete strangers for a prolonged period of time is enough to send one over the edge, but most prisoners cope; they remain optimistic about their future thanks largely to another colonial legacy – Christianity. The simple things that bring them happiness; marijuana and cigarettes, are things sometimes frowned upon by free peoples or may be prohibited by law. Policy makers need to revisit such laws, for I am convinced that prohibition or incarceration will not stop marijuana use.

The value of freedom is ever present in my consciousness and I often find myself utilizing the experience I’ve gained and the lessons I’ve learned during those prison interviews to caution as well as counsel many young men in my community. I trust that my words of counsel bear fruit.

Queenela Cameron 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. She is also a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Guyana.

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.

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.

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.