In July of 2017, a fire destroyed the majority of the buildings that stood in the compound of the Georgetown Prison in Guyana’s capital. Four prisoners escaped and one warden was killed. Over 1000 people were imprisoned at the time in a space meant to hold less than 600 people. Just over a year earlier, in March 2016, 17 prisoners died and eight were injured after a fire spread in the Capital A Block of the prison. The setting of this fire arose out of prisoner’s frustration with structural deficiencies within the prison which included overcrowding, poor sanitation, and an infestation of pests. Also of relevance was that the overcrowding was caused in large part by the length of time individuals were being held on remand before trial. However, these events did not occur in a vacuum. The issues of overcrowding and the numbers of prisoners being held on remand for extended periods of time have been linked to varying forms of prisoner resistance since British rule.
Historically, prisons in British Guiana were used by colonial administrators to control and confine the labouring population, namely the formerly enslaved and indentured immigrants, within the plantation society. As a result, those of African and Asian descent were disproportionately policed and punished to deter others from engaging in ‘criminal’ activities. Most notably this occurred for breaches of contract and misdemeanours under the immigration ordinance. Whilst some prisoners adapted to the substandard living conditions and overtly punitive environment of the prison system, many sought to test these institutional practices. Critically, therefore, prisons quickly became sites of resistance and challenge for the labouring population as they attempted to alter their legal, social, and political situations.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, government inquiries and the reports of colonial authorities have urged change in the provision of the colony’s prison system, citing concerns disturbingly similar to those identified by the Commissions of Enquiry into the 2016 and 2017 fires. This included, among others, poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. As in recent years inquiries into these concerns were often a direct response to violent, every day, or official forms of prisoner’s resistance.
Due to the limited number of warders the prison system was often reliant on the compliance of prisoners to adhere to rules and regulations rather than force. As a result, when the prisoners felt powerless, they would often resort to uprisings as a way to challenge the system. Habitual offenders frequently took advantage of the lack of trained warders required to maintain discipline with the creation of gangs that threatened to overwhelm the balance of control. These groups included a range of differing classes, such as first offenders, juveniles, and those awaiting trial. Whilst attempts were made in the 1930s to alter certain aspects of the prison system, such as the separation of different classes of prisoners, these efforts were ultimately hampered due to budget constraints, and the need to manage and discipline the prison population. A lack of space, and facilities within Guyana’s prison system mean that those on remand continue to be held in close association with those imprisoned for committing violent crimes.
Rum, cannabis, and opium provided an escape from the hardships of labouring on plantations throughout much of the nineteenth century. And, having become firmly established within the culture of the labouring class the increased legislation introduced around the turn of the twentieth century unsurprisingly led to a significant rise in this form of resistance both inside and outside the prison walls. For many prisoners, substance use provides an escape from the anxieties of being imprisoned. Thus, unlike uprisings that involve acts of violence, most acts of resistance have involved everyday negotiations that have taken place between the prison population and the staff. This has included the consumption and trade of illicit substances, such as alcohol and drugs, the latter of which has mostly been trafficked by the prison staff for financial gain. Recently, much has been done to improve fencing, with the introduction of night-time surveillance, to help stem attempts by friends and family to throw contraband over the walls.
Hence, it can be seen that the use of alcohol and drugs within the prison is a trend that has continued into the twenty first century. Whilst the introduction of technology has led to a wider range of contraband in recent years (cell phones and sim cards), alcohol, and drugs continue to play an important role in helping to relieve the strictures of incarceration. In particular, cannabis remains a key drug within the prisons in connection to both escapism and resistance. Additionally, images and videos of participation in other illegal or banned activities, such as human ‘dog fights’, bring attention to the conditions in the prison system, both physical (the overcrowding) and mental (frustration and boredom).
As Guyana’s prison system continues to attract media attention and the concern of prison reform and human rights organisations (United Nations), history can be drawn on to highlight continuities in terms of the challenges of managing large numbers of prisoners with limited means. Despite some temporary successes for the prison population during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, resistance often led to additional or continued oppression. Yet, such acts of resistance continue. Since independence, a lack of resources and poor infrastructure has meant that the several commissions of enquiry have not resulted in systemic change. Further uprisings occurred in the summer of 2020 in response to continued deplorable conditions and worries that COVID-19 was spreading in the prison. It also provides a final sobering conclusion that little has changed in terms of the high rate of imprisonment in Guyana and the detrimental effects the system has had since the beginning of British rule in 1814.
The authors would like to thank Mellissa Ifill for her comments/feedback on an earlier draft of this blog.
Guyana’s prisons have been described as ‘potentially life-threatening’ and ‘not fit for human habitation’. These life-threatening conditions can be attributed to systemic and historically derived deficiencies that continue to plague Guyana’s Prison Service (GPS) today. These include overcrowding, poor infrastructure, violence, physical abuse and unsanitary conditions, all of which have a detrimental impact on the staff and prisoners that live and work there. Prison officers are not only detrimentally impacted by the prison environment and its decaying infrastructure (e.g., which induces psychological distress, depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use, violence, corruption, disorder, absenteeism and a high staff turnover) but their responsibilities often entail ‘physical exertion and mental anxiety’. This helps to explain why the international evidence shows prison officers are at a greater risk of mental ill-health than other occupational groups. In fact, being a prison officer is a dangerous and stressful job that involves daily intimidation and on occasion, actual physical violence. Nowhere is this truer than in Guyana. While the experience of prisoners in Guyana has been captured elsewhere (see Cameron, 2020; Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017), this blog focuses on the frequently forgotten prison staff who work across Guyana’s five prisons; three of which are colonial era prisons that were constructed and operated according to the needs of the colony (see Anderson et al. 2020); colonial legacies that are still evident today.
The post-colonial prison is shaped – haunted – by the colonial past and this is true for prison officers as well as the regimes, infrastructure and policies. Staff played a key role in the colonial prison as they were expected to use ‘their moral influence to encourage good behaviour’, provide educational classes and enforce labour, which often led to guards using ‘cart whips and cat o’ nine tails’ on prisoners to ensure compliance and productivity. The cruelty and mistreatment of prisoners by staff that plagued the colonial prison was attributable to a lack of regulation, which had created ‘a regime of fear and cruelty’ in some of Guyana’s jails. Although Regulations were finally introduced in the late 1800s outlining the duties of prison officers, which were implemented in line with British practices (e.g., CO 111/67, CO 116/207 and CO 111/384), it did not stop these abuses. Abuses that have not only been documented in the past but as the ensuing discussion will show, are still prevalent in Guyana’s prison service today.
Her Majesty’s Penal Service was changed to Guyana’s Prison Service in 1957 and was established by the Prison Act No. 26. Guyana’s Prison Service (GPS) aims ‘to provide a secure environment for Staff and Offenders’ and has just over 500 staff working in the service – 58% are men and 42% are women (GPS, 2017) – with the Director of Prisons having overall responsibility for all of the prisons in Guyana, while the Deputy Director holds responsibility for Operations. As nearly half of all GPS staff ‘are women and civilian staff who do not secure the majority of male prisoners’ there is a shortage of staff for the male estate – about 295 male prison personnel for around 2,074 male prisoners that comprise 96% of Guyana’s prison population – that results in a low staff to prisoner ratio, which has had ‘a significant impact on the personal security of inmates and guards alike’. Feelings of safety and security are integral to rehabilitation and building healthy prisons. Feeling safe is also the most important determinant of distress among prisoners and staff, illustrating that both safety and security are important issues that need to be addressed since the majority of prisoners (89%) felt less safe in prison than anywhere else they had lived (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017). In fact, safety and security are basic human needs, which if unsatisfied can actually exacerbate levels of violence, disorder and rule-breaking in prison (see Hoke and Demory, 2014). Although prisons have a dual role of public protection alongside the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, it has been unable to adequately fulfil either since its inception (see Ifill, 2019) as many of the problems facing GPS today, were also prevalent in the past.
The contemporary prison service in Guyana is plagued by the same problems evident in the colonial prison, which according to the Director of Prisons (2020) rests on ‘the absence of physical infrastructure and human resource’. In fact, the physical infrastructure remains the same as in colonial times, particularly in the colonial era prisons that have not really changed. Internationally, it is well documented that the prison environment (conditions and culture) can adversely affect staff and prisoners, particularly prisons described as ‘not fit for human habitation’ like those in Guyana. Such conditions also feed into and influence the way staff see and treat prisoners detained in these prisons. Research from the global north has continually shown that ‘the routine and bureaucratic denial of humanity in prison and the tendency to construct prisoners as the other ‘them’ creates spaces where inhumane treatment may occur…making brutality possible, even inevitable’ (Crawley, 2004). The use of violence by staff against inmates, the depersonalisation of prisoners (prisoners are merely bodies to be counted) and staff detachment are also well-documented techniques implemented by prison officers to cope with their job, which can also precipitate corruption. In fact, the prison environment, its culture and the high concentration of criminals in confined spaces ‘not only makes those deprived of their liberty prone to instigating corruption; it may equally serve as a catalyst for corrupt practices and abuse among prison service officers, particularly if coupled with a lack of accountability and oversight’ (UNODC, 2017). Thus, safety and security are also compromised by ‘widespread corruption, mismanagement, bribery, favouritism and dishonesty in the GPS’ as the correlation between levels of corruption and ill-treatment in prisons globally is well documented (see UNODC, 2017). Although incidents of violence and corruption are sporadic in GPS, they still occur. Prison officers often have fewer qualifications, less training, low morale, low salaries, fewer career opportunities and are often held in lower regard than other officials leaving them susceptible to corruption (Ifill, 2019; UNODC, 2017). This has led to calls to increase the pay of prison officers in Guyana to compensate for the daily risks they face and in attempt to eliminate corruption.
Corruption occurs on a continuum and can vary from turning a blind eye to contraband in prison to aiding escapes and undertaking financial misdemeanours. Although levels of corruption vary across Guyana’s prisons, levels of corruption have been described as concerning, with ‘High-Levels of Corruption’ being evident at the overcrowded and heavily criticised Lusignan prison (also described as ‘not fit for human habitation’). In fact, Minister Benn said, ‘we are losing more prison officers than we are getting due to corrupt practices.’ In Guyana in 2016, two hundred and thirty-nine prison officers – just under half of all officers (47%) employed by GPS – were charged and sanctioned with misconduct, that fell into two main areas; the possession of prohibited articles and assault on one another (GPS, 2017).
Possession of Prohibited Articles: Cigarettes, Cannabis and Rum: it is acknowledged that prisons are not closed and total institutions (if they ever were), which means contraband flows freely in and out of prisons via visitors, prisoners, civilians and delivery drivers, as well as prison staff. In fact, staff are one of the main supply routes for contraband, with 28% of inmates in Guyana reporting that staff brought drugs into prison (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017), which is supported by several high profile incidents across all of Guyana’s prisons (e.g., in New Amsterdam, Camp Street, Mazaruni and Timehri). The trade in contraband, particularly illegal drugs in prison, namely cannabis, is facilitated by prison wardens and Police Officers because it is ‘big business’ and there is a lot of money to be made. However, it also indicates corruption, illegal earnings and criminality, which is often accompanied by violence, and is increasingly being associated with (organised) criminal gangs (see Owen and Grigsby, 2012).
Violence and Assault: Shivs and Shanks: there are incidents of violence by staff against prisoners, by prisoners against staff and prisoners against prisoners, some of which have led to death. In fact, eight out of ten prisoners had witnessed inmates being beaten and a quarter said they had been attacked or beaten in the previous six months illustrating why prison was deemed to be an unsafe place (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017). Not only have there been instances of prisoners overpowering staff and stealing their weapons, which includes guns, but prisoners also create makeshift weapons which are then used to attack fellow inmates and/or staff, which has on occasion resulted in death:
Therefore, it can be seen that Guyana’s Prison Service continues to be haunted by its colonial past, and that includes its staff. During colonisation, the British blamed isolation, overcrowding and a lack of prospects on the low morale of prison officers. There were very few rules and regulations outlining their role, which meant violence and mistreatment were rife, but justified, as prisons, like the plantations contained dehumanised and often animalised bodies that led to an increase in the number of punishments being administered within the prisons. It is in this context that prison officers and prisoners occupy historical spaces of distress, decay and violence. In fact, the conditions and problems facing GPS today are similar to those in the colonial past despite the plethora of reports, commissions and recommendations that have been made over the years. All grades of prison personnel in the contemporary Guyanese Prison Service – as they did in the past – experience physical and mental exhaustion, poor health, stress, anxiety as well as being over worked and under paid, that has for some resulted in excessive alcohol use that according to Governor P.E. Wodehouse, could result in death. However, there is very little research on prison officers in Guyana, which is something the MNS in Guyana’s Jails project seeks to rectify. The dearth of research on the experience of prison officers in the global south means that research from the global north is often extrapolated and applied to explaining the experiences of prison personnel – as in this blog – despite its inapplicability and irrelevance, illustrating the need for research that captures the lived experiences of prison officers working in Guyana’s prisons. The role and impact of effective, well-trained and committed staff at all grades should not be underestimated since research – albeit from the global north – shows it can impact on staff motivation and retention; determine the success of a prison or new regime; impact on safety and security; everyone’s health and wellbeing; levels of distress, violence, drug use, self-harm and suicide; as well as recovery and rehabilitation. Although there have been calls for more professionalism and training in GPS, caution must be taken to ensure that the institutional reproduction and dominance of colonial practices does not take precedence and obscure the epistemologies and experiences of the global south that removes the colonised from their own history. An ‘erasure and forgetting’ known as colonial amnesia (see Kerrigan, 2020).
Tammy Ayres is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester, UK.
The author would like to thank Clare Anderson, Kellie Moss and Queenela Cameron for their comments/input on an earlier draft of this blog. Thanks, must also go to Kellie Moss for the photographs.
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.
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, TheRoyal 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
working in this area.
NANA in Guyana (Photograph: Martin Halliwell)
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
concerns and problems highlighted in the aforementioned studies are:
which is inimical to rehabilitation and reintegration in society;
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;
alternatives to incarceration offered by the criminal justice system.
& 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.
housed 477 – exceeding its male capacity by 133 and under its female capacity
(current under construction) housed 354 – under its capacity by 36;
housed 147, exceeding capacity by 27;
128, over its capacity by 38;
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.
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
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
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]
Guyana Prison Service
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
for improving the system that have emanated from the previously mentioned
capacity, renovating and transforming the Mazaruni Prison to house high profile
Increasing staff levels
and training to deal with increasing number of inmates;
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;
between the GPS, the GPF and the judiciary since the prisons are negatively
affected by deficiencies in the court system.
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
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
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.
transformation process has commenced but there is much, much more work to be
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.