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suspension of this vital stress-reliever and depression-combatant implies that many prisoners were likely to become withdrawn, easily agitated, disruptive, fight amongst themselves, experience appetite loss, and harbour escape and/or suicidal thoughts.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

Guyana’s Prison Officers: A Stressful and Dangerous Job

By Tammy Ayres

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.

The lack of penological resources characteristic of the contemporary Guyanese prison were also prevalent in the 1800s; prison guards were difficult to recruit, while overcrowding and poor conditions meant that many prison officers ‘left employment, or retired early, due to stress and overwork’. Historical records show that even the medical officers – employed to care for prisoners – were responsible for the death of inmates, as their role often revolved  ‘around diagnosis and discipline rather than treatment and care’. In fact, the decaying infrastructure and overcrowding has  a negative impact on staff and prisoners today as well as in the past: ‘J.  Brumel  noted  in  1875, that incarceration  caused  terror  to  convicts,  but  also had  a  depressing influence on officers’ and their families, ‘who often lived inside prison compounds’. This remains the case today, with many prison officers and their families living in close proximity to the prisons in which they work, particularly at Mazaruni where officer’s families live on the prison complex, which is only accessible via boat (see pictures below). 

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.


A Warder at HMPS, The Illustrated London News, 1888.

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:

sharpened spoons…boring out your eye…a sharpened spoon up an officer’s nose…they also had sharpened wires, which they could push up under your ribs.’

However, staff also perpetrate violence against prisoners, and according to Minister Benn ‘some unfortunate persons, who perhaps [have] money or from whom money could be extorted…they [prison officers] will take a picture or a video and put knives to his throat and say ‘pay money to us…or else.’ While most prisons are violent, the State have been accused of creating the ‘conditions’ necessary for violence to occur in Guyana’s prisons. The overcrowding, poor infrastructure and staffing issues, when combined with the toxic mix of prisoners, including those with mental health issues who have always been, albeit inappropriately, sent to prison rather than a mental institution, has led to violence, unrest and murder. In fact, reports suggest that:

‘If they (prison authorities) know that a person is not well behaved, they deliberately transfer them to the Capital Section where you will be beaten. It’s a dog eat dog situation.’

Corruption and violence varies across Guyana’s prisons. However, corruption at Lusignan prison is said to have ‘significantly increased after prisoners were transferred there following the deadly fire at the Camp Street prison in March 2016’. In fact, the confiscation and seizure of contraband instigated the 2016 fire at Camp Street, which was described as ‘a war zone… full of burnt bodies’ where anyone in uniform was seen as the enemy. The more recent fire at Lusignan prison last July was also related  to the seizure of contraband as well as the beating of a prisoner by four prison officers, incidents which subsequently led to the prisoners setting ‘fire to the building, demanding that the drugs be returned’. While it is unclear how rife corruption is in Guyana’s Prison Service, contraband, particularly cell phones and drugs, help prisoners to cope with imprisonment; a sentiment also iterated by prisoners at the Camp Street Enquiry: ‘they have to get them cause it wouldn’t be comfortable for them to serve their prison time.’ Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain if corrupt prison officers who collude with prisoners do it to make money or do it out of compassion due to the harsh conditions’ prisoners are forced to endure in Guyana’s jails. This is particularly pertinent since many of the prison officers come from the same communities as their custodians, which is further compounded by a lack of research/knowledge in this area. Although GPS have tried to eliminate corruption, by offering financial incentives (e.g. the Guyana Prison Service offer $25,000 to expose criminal activities in the prison system), as well as recruiting new staff who are currently being trained ‘to manage prisons without corruption’, the demand for contraband will remain as it makes life easier for prisoners and staff alike. Drugs like cannabis have a calming effect on the jail, which makes the job easier for prison officers and may help to explain why some prison officers occasionally turn a blind-eye and/or facilitate its supply (see Cameron, 2020). Unfortunately, due to market dynamics, while demand exists there will always be someone willing to take the risk to ensure their supply, meaning that eliminating corruption and violence is an ongoing challenge facing GPS, particularly while the demand remains amongst prisoners that is largely driven by the poor and ‘potentially life-threatening’ conditions prisoners are forced to endure.

Discharged Convicts Waiting for the Boat, The Illustrated London News, 1885

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.

Enhancing Mental Health Communications in Guyana

Martin Halliwell

Two of the trickiest aspects of mental health care to get right are psychiatric diagnosis and public health communications. The challenge for health providers around the world is to maintain consistent standards of classification for mental health and illness without imposing a rigid framework that overlooks social determinants and cultural specificities. Similarly, while public health education is part of the machinery of government – advising citizens about healthy behaviour or instructing them what to do in emergencies – this top-down model sometimes overlooks the importance of horizontal modes of communication within and between communities.

In this blog, I reflect on these two different types of health communications – the first directed towards health care providers, the second towards the public – to think through implications and challenges for developing a dynamic model of public health in Guyana, especially at the intersection of mental health and incarceration for a multicultural society.

Mental Health Diagnostics

Guyana, like the Caribbean as a whole, uses the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) for its diagnostics. This is a globally held standard for both physical and mental health, except for in the United States and parts of Canada, where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM) has more specifically informed psychiatric classification since the early 1950s. First established in Paris in 1900, the ICD has gone through 11 editions in the 120 years since and is closely wedded to health standards upheld by the World Health Organization (WHO). This compares to the DSM, established by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952 to provide consistency to the hitherto psychiatric categories deployed in the medical department of the US Armed Forces. DSM has expanded dramatically through five editions, moving away from psychoanalytic language in the third edition of 1980 to develop an organic framework for describing psychiatric disorders and, since 1994, a multi-axial system for understanding the various causes and components of mental illness.

The most obvious commonality between ICD and DSM is the word ‘disorder’ for describing a group of conditions that includes mood disorders, neurotic disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, and mental and behavioural disorders due to using psychoactive substances. As well as variance in scope, there also some key differences between the two systems. In a July 2014 article, Peter Tyrer points to the global reach of ICD and its attention to primary care in low and middle-income countries, in contrast to DSM’s focus on high-income countries and its specificity as a psychiatric manual. The ICD also stands apart from DSM’s links to health insurance, which determines whether a patient in the US with a diagnosed condition is eligible for co-pays, Medicare or Medicaid. Given its global reach and flexibility as a system, researchers like Cary Kogan and Peter Tyrer hope that ICD will eventually replace DSM in Canada and the US. Published in June 2018, for adoption by member states from January 2022, ICD-11 has moved away from a categorical to a dimensional approach to mental, behavioural and neurological disorders, offering a more nuanced account of a patient’s changes over time and seeking to integrate traditional medicine.

The main problem about both diagnostic models is that psychiatrists deem ‘disorder’ to be a neutral term referring to a disequilibrium or impairment within the human organism, yet from an analytical sociological lens it is a heavily coded word shaped by social determinants and cultural experiences. In clinical terms, diagnosing a disorder can sometimes lead to relief for a patient. Just as often, though, it can lead to the medicalization of a person who might be experiencing a temporary fluctuation in mood and behaviour; or who needs interpersonal support rather than medical treatment; or whose environment is not conducive to the best of health.  Crucially, sometimes the diagnosis of a major disorder can be stigmatizing and can resonate more forcibly within certain demographic groups. For example, there were numerous studies in the post-World War II period that linked ‘disorder’ to the perceived behaviour of Black males, with discourses commonly slipping fluidly between health, home and society. It is easy to see how the term becomes mired in ideology if a disorder in or of the self mirrors a breakdown in family or social order. This insight has led critics like Daryl Michael Scott in Contempt and Pity (1997) and Jonathan Metzl in The Protest Psychosis (2010) to critique what they see as the invidious racial coding of this kind of psychiatric language.

This does not mean that we should dismiss ICD and DSM as being part of the micropolitics of the state, especially as ICD seeks to cross borders and promote health access globally. Through their numerous revisions, the two manuals have attempted to balance questions of scale and duration and take into account multiple factors before reaching a diagnosis. However, even if we embrace the progressive spirit of ICD, the consequences of a clinical diagnosis for treatment and operational practice are subject to significant variations in national health infrastructures across global regions. This is especially the case if we think about the availability and cost of certain therapeutic drugs, if and how comorbidities are treated, and to what kind of interpersonal care a patient has access – whether it is in a state or private facility or within an outpatient setting. Used crudely, an ICD or DSM diagnosis can be life transforming in the wrong way. A diagnosis of a major disorder, particularly among some demographics, can lead to custodial care or a course of drugs that might not be in the patient’s best interest, leaving social determinants largely untouched.  

Public Health Communications

In contrast to diagnostics, public health communications seem to be, on the surface, less controversial. Surely, the balancing of official communications at state level and a sensitivity to the needs of a particular community offers a balanced way forward for health officials. This balancing of vertical and horizontal approaches is one that Chelsea Clinton and Devi Shridar uphold in their 2017 book Governing Global Health, aligned with WHO’s view that health is a right and not a privilege. The Pan American Health Organization, established in 1902, embodies the views of the WHO within the Americas, and in 2018 it mapped out a sustainable health model through to 2030, which places as much emphasis on human resources and crisis response as it does on access to medicine and the resilience of health systems. On this view, the most effective kinds of public health communication are less about the balancing of vertical and horizontal axes, and more about promoting a holisitic understanding of physical and mental health as part of an ecosystem of well-being.

This PAHO model shares with a ‘One Health’ approach a recognition of the interconnected nature of human health and animal and planetary health. Yet, this does not necessarily provide public health workers with easily distributable public health information. This is especially true when budgets are tight, or where there are barriers of language and literacy, or where some communities are hard to reach. This last factor is true of Guyana, which centres its state health apparatus on Georgetown and the seaboard, leaving a number of rural regions and localities (in the interior and close to the borders with Venezuela, Brazil and Surinam) underserved in terms of access to well-staffed health services, instead relying on sparse health units operating on a part-time basis.

On visiting all of Guyana’s prisons in April 2019, in collaboration with the Guyana Prison Service and Guyana’s Ministry of Public Health, members of our research team were struck with how patchy and out-dated health information was, and in some prisons was lacking altogether. Where we did see posters or leaflets in the prison system, or in allied medical facilities, they focused almost entirely on physical health and disease, such as malaria, anaemia or HIV/AIDS.

Only occasionally did we see very basic information on mental health. At the National Psychiatric Hospital near New Amsterdam Prison we saw three versions of the 2017 PAHO World Mental Health Day poster ‘Depression: Let’s Talk’, representing different ethnicities and genders (as illustrated here), despite the conditions of the hospital ward being almost unbearable and not conducive to talk therapy. We also saw a ‘Break the Silence’ poster on domestic sexual violence in the prison hospital at Mazaruni (a men’s prison), with an emphasis on abused women speaking up against hidden crimes that are often covered over, and with the tagline at the bottom of the poster: ‘A real man can control himself’.

Recommendations for a Dynamic Public Health Model

Whether or not health information in communities and prisons are improved and updated, it may still overlook the WHO’s view that health is a dynamic process that needs underpinning by care-oriented facilities, not simply a textbook issue to diagnose and treat. The implications of the WHO and PAHO model are that public health communications should not just be offered to a community as a service, but be embedded in that community in a co-owned space in which prevention is prioritized over treatment. We saw an example of this co-ownership in Georgetown, with the participation of many students in a World Suicide Prevention Day march on 10 October 2019 (see my December 2019 blog), alongside the Ministry of Education’s efforts to integrate classes on health and family life into school curricula from age 5 upwards. Nevertheless, there are three key aspects of an integrated public health model that might be usefully adopted.

The most obvious aspect is for an updated and more nuanced set of posters, leaflets and online resources about the signs and symptoms of mental distress that might help to deepen social views of mental health and would support the work of health officials in terms of education and outreach. It presents an opportunity, for example, to ensure health education among male prisoners does not simply skew towards anger management, as is the case in Guyanese prisons. This opportunity might link to a broader programme of prisoner rehabilitation classes, including sociological, historical and literary topics, in order to help inmates better understand their behaviour and to learn about harm prevention from a wider frame of reference.

Secondly, we could point to the need to ensure that public health literature brackets off discourses of ‘right behaviour’ understood in moralistic, religious or legalistic terms – which is particularly tricky when it comes to countries that criminalize recreational drug use across a broad spectrum. Such a move needs to be carefully considered and managed, in order to focus less on punitive discourses and more clearly on self-care, care of others, and how to access health services. The independent Drug Policy Alliance in the US, established in 2000, offers a model of this, given that one of its key values focuses on ‘empowering youth, parents and educators with honest, reality-based drug education’ that moves beyond ‘fear-based messages and zero-tolerance policies’.

A third important area would be to ensure that prisoners, as well as patients treated for lengthy periods in inpatient facilities, have broader access to two-way communications beyond the institution. Within the US prison system, one example is the Restorative Radio Project, run by Sylvia Ryerson, a researcher at Yale University. This project enables families of prisoners in Appalachia to share ‘audio postcards’ and music with imprisoned family members via toll-free public radio – and there is potential for inmates to reciprocate with their own audio postcards. Such an opportunity can help alleviate loneliness, isolation and a loss of self-esteem among prisoners, as well as what Johanna Crane and Kelsey Pascoe call the ‘chronic health condition’ of incarceration itself.

This radio-facilitated model can be linked to larger step changes, such as Yale University’s efforts to expand prisoner education via for-credit courses with the aim of imagining ‘a future beyond mass incarceration’ and ensuring that prisoners and empowered and educated rather than being treated or managed. The fact that this is an elite Ivy League institution with a $1.5 million Mellon grant to develop an educational initiative that dovetails with criminal justice reform takes us back to structural questions about capacity, economics and racism which are never easy to resolve. However, the initiative also speaks to other national models, such as in Norway in which all prisoners have a right to education and a commitment to rehabilitation through positive experiences.

Concluding Thoughts

There is much promise at state level in Guyana of meeting the challenge of tackling the burden of mental illness, as the development expert Ramesh Gampat recommended at the end of his two-volume 2015 book Guyana: From Slavery to the Present. In addition to the aim of the Ministry of Public Health to reduce suicide rates and destigmatize mental illness with the aid of WHO’s mhGAP Intervention Guide for use in non-clinical settings, we saw evidence of art therapy practised at Mazaruni Prison, alongside (patchy) library material and outdoor recreational facilities in most of Guyana’s prisons. This reveals a growing awareness that health and well-being are multifaceted.

The challenge remains for us, though, across the intersecting global communities of the early twenty-first century, to imagine a future where public health information is a shared resource rather than an arm of government that flourishes or withers on the strength of budgetary priorities.

Martin Halliwell is Professor of American Studies in the School of Arts and a research expert at the University of Leicester. His new book American Health Crisis: One Hundred Years of Panic, Planning, and Politicsis published by the University of California Press. He would like to thank Clare Anderson, Queenela Cameron, Dylan Kerrigan and Kellie Moss for their valuable help in developing this blog.

Abolition and the Colonial Amnesia of Caribbean Prison Systems

Dylan Kerrigan

Introduction

Processes of historical erasure scar the Caribbean and remove transhistorical context. Across disciplines this erasure and forgetting is described as “amnesia” and writers of the Caribbean have described this malady in various ways, including, but not limited to: “dissociative amnesia” – Paula Morgan; “Collective amnesia” – Alyssa Trotz; “Institutionalised Amnesia” – George Lamming; “mass amnesia – Sunity Maharaj; and “Engineered Amnesia” – Charles Mills. Colonial amnesia as described by Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past – as bundles of silences – can be imagined as an umbrella label for all these criss-crossing mechanisms erasing the ways cultural behaviours, social hierarchies, and borders, laws and exclusions in the Caribbean and elsewhere, emerge in response to longstanding social realities and political-economic processes.

What is the impact of colonial amnesia on the dignity, restitution and socio-cultural outcomes of Caribbean prison systems today? Colonial amnesia erases colonial continuities from the racist past to the neo-colonial carceral present. One consequence of this is the removal of solutions. In particular, the space to imagine solutions to the structural social problem of racial violence produced by the capitalist social arrangements that emerged from colonialism, and their consequences. These transhistorical consequences include pre-emptive criminalization; forced labour; and investments in the infrastructure of deportation today as prisons in the Caribbean expand, and “carceral surveillance states” become the next failed solution to authoritarian and racist immigration policies in the former centre of Empire, such as the state racism of Windrush and “hostile environments” in the UK.

Racial Capitalism

In confronting the colonial amnesia inherent to our project, previous blogs have discussed evidence of the shifts, continuities and differences between MNS in Guyana’s prisons past and present, and the broader connections to British Empire with its associated drives of conquest, accumulation and social control via hierarchal social class-based society. These include: changes in methods of rehabilitation; mental health and 19th century policing; a history of substance use and control; epidemics and pandemics in British Guiana’s jails; understanding the challenges facing the Guyana Prison Service and more.

In this blog, alongside the concept and consequences of colonial amnesia, I also want to add to this knowledge base Ruth Gilmore’s (2018) broader structural context and political economy of how prisons today, like colonial prisons, extract profit through incarceration and are produced by the logic of racial capitalism. Prison infrastructure, salaries, surveillance and the wider economies around prisons require capital, and the circulation and accumulation of capital for their existence. In this sense prisons from their colonial origin, and today, are not there for justice, families and societies, which are all destabilised by prisons. They are elements in global processes of extraction, capital accumulation and maintaining the social relations of class-based societies. The enforced “in-activities” of people and their bodies inside prisons means criminalisation and incarceration transforms bodies into tiny units of extraction for the accumulation processes of racial capitalism under what can be described in the Caribbean as contemporary Imperialism. As long as a body is incarcerated, capital flows, circulates and accumulates. Prisons, just like colonial slavery and plantations, extract and circulate capital through capturing and enslaving the time of particular racialised social classes.

“Racial hierarchies locate certain bodies in certain spaces, or unequally allocate resources and apply public policies to different territories depending on the bodies that inhabit them” (Castillo 2019, 3). In the contexts of punishment as currently experienced in Caribbean prisons, social class defines who is punishable and held on remand more than others. In a reflection of colonial times those most criminalised and punished by Caribbean laws and jails are also often from the most vulnerable social classes in society (Sarsfield and Bergman 2016, 2017). Racial and social hierarchies handed down from colonial times impact who ends up in jail in the Caribbean. Gilmore “suggests that prisons are geographical solutions to social and economic crises, politically organized by a racial state”. For Gilmore, the prison system is a part of the project of postcolonial state building that extends the racial and class hierarchies of the past. Caribbean prisons contribute to the maintenance of these inequalities through the detrimental impacts of imprisonment not just on individuals but also families and the wider community. These include: human rights violations, the erosion of social cohesion, the relationship between imprisonment and poverty, the public and individual health consequences of imprisonment, and the financial cost of imprisonment which diverts funds from non-custodial alternatives and systems. Yet in the Caribbean for many, a shared history of colonial and post-colonial violence has shaped common and syncretic socio-cultural values on punishment and the treatment of Caribbean people by their States under local systems of law, justice and imprisonment. This impacts what is deemed acceptable to say about Caribbean prisons and their abolition.

Colonial Amnesia and Caribbean Prisons

While colonial amnesia is a central component of how many anthropologists, sociologists, historians and cultural theorists imagine Caribbean worlds, there is a struggle to articulate what should be done about the loss of history and the sense of “pastlessness” in the context of prisons. Richard and Sally Price for example have provided a list of Caribbean writers who through the power of Caribbean imagination have “pointed the way toward possible escapes” (1997, 5). It includes Carpentier’s take on Haiti and the possibilities of “magical realism”, and Lamming’s reminder of “the redemptive potential of Caribbean folk wisdom” to subvert “the hegemony of Western History” through such devices as the Carnivalesque, ridicule, and speaking truth to power. Guyanese Wilson Harris also believed that in the “absence of ruins or a sense of pastlessness in folk thought” that “a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination” (Harris cited in Price and Price 1997, 5). Glissant too urged for the “struggle against a single History, and for a cross-fertilization of histories, that would at once repossess one’s true sense of time and one’s identity” (Glissant cited in Price and Price 1997, 5).

But where can this escape and redemptive historical imagination take us if as Walcott advised “the imagination is a territory as subject to invasion and seizure as any far province of Empire” (1989, 141); and Caribbean worlds to a degree, whether completely, syncretically or under duress are already occupied by the superstructure of western epistemologies and narratives of the world around discipline and punishment? If the battle against mental occupation means that traditional Western models of history as progress “as sequential time,” is “basically comic”, “absurd” and “the rational madness of history” (Walcott 1974, 6); what does this mean for prison regimes in the Caribbean where structural violence and the consequences of coloniality across social, economic and ecological terrains haunts lives and entraps families? Walcott also wrote of the Antilles that “the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” and we can describe such sentiment as similar to what Merle Hodge described as “activist writing” against the legacies of indoctrination (Hodge 1990) and Sylvia Wynter’s suggestion that tackling the domination of historical inequalities in the Caribbean requires militant scholarship.

The seriousness of amnesia and its impact on what can and cannot be said about Caribbean prison worlds is captured in Ann Stoler’s term Colonial Aphasia (2011). Colonial aphasia steps beyond “amnesia” or “forgetting” to suggest three logics at play in the post-colonial inability to work for the abolition of prisons in the Caribbean and a new model beyond reform. These logics are; 1) an occlusion of knowledge; 2) a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things; and 3) a difficulty comprehending the enduring relevancy of what has been spoken. Within a transhistorical and geo-political context the features of colonial aphasia have great salience for the coloniality of Caribbean punishment regimes and prison worlds. Under colonial aphasia the structural legacies and facts of brutal conquest, genocide and racialised capitalism are anaesthetized external to the Caribbean nation state and become unsayable or individualised, as many postcolonial elites and the middle classes style their polities as modern and democratic in the image of the former imperial centre. As David Slater notes,

This imperializing perspective is anchored in a lack of respect and recognition of the socio-political and cultural value of the non-Western society. This kind of power/knowledge asymmetry does not only depend on the deployment of economic capacity and military force, but is also constituted in terms of a differential discursive enframing. The power to enframe and represent entails putting into place a regime of truth that subordinated nations are encouraged, persuaded, and induced to adopt and make their own. (2011, 455)

Independent democratic states in the Caribbean did not take off economically and develop socially under the same advantageous economic conditions that European countries did. Nor can many Caribbean states, including many small island nations survive in social welfare terms or develop in competitive economic terms under racialised global capitalism. This is particularly evident in the case of social development and climate change, and the role of brutal policing and prison regimes that are inherited from colonial contexts of state anti-black racism.

A Pathway to Abolition?

So, what can be done about the lack of political and policy reflection that Caribbean prisons are spaces where colonial logic and a plantation mentality of control and contain still dominates? Where are the reparations and restitution needed for transformation? And this cannot mean former UK PM’sDavid Cameron offering Jamaica $40m to help build a new prison to house both local inmates and some of the 600 Jamaicans serving time in British jails. How can we move beyond 200 years of unsuccessful prison reform, which has failed to develop Caribbean prisons from the cruel spaces of colonial logic and work, for a drastic change that can decolonise the transhistorical structural violence of racial capitalism? How can we see the road to the abolition of Caribbean prisons; because as Ruth Gilmore’s work connecting the accumulation strategies of racial capitalism to prison worlds recognises, we don’t need to design better prisons – as is the common rhetoric of Caribbean politicians; we need alternatives to prison.

The prison industrial complex as a residue of the European Empire and racial capitalism has travelled the world, and, in that sense, it is expansive, but its real effects, have been to shrivel rather than expand imaginative solutions and alternatives. Colonial amnesia has Caribbean states and their populations stuck in an endless cycle of prison reform that began in the 18th-century colonial world under the emergence of racial capitalism. Abolition in the Caribbean needs to move from a possible idea to something in restitution and reparations terms we can imagine, build, and pilot. In transforming Caribbean prison worlds, political education, mutual aid, and visiting Caribbean prisons to build community are ways to start healing colonial amnesia. While many people are in prisons for the crimes they have committed – and where these crimes were violent, in the context of abolition, solutions will need to be built – it does not erase that confronting the colonial amnesia of prison reform in the Caribbean and reckoning with such colonial aphasia, moves us to mourning, material address, and anger. Specifically, what are we going to do about the colonial regimes of incarceration, criminalisation and capital accumulation still operating in – and haunting – the 21st century Caribbean?

Dylan Kerrigan is a Lecturer in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester, UK.

Police Lockups and Mental Health in Colonial British Guiana

Shammane Joseph Jackson 

“Left Plantation 41 for Fort Wellington. As I baited my horse at the police station here, I heard a loud commotion outside of the station house. Upon enquiring a reason for such a commotion, I saw a group of about eight women and one young man only 18 years old. This young man named Georgie seemed in great mental distress. He claimed to be the Governor of the colony and many times his ramblings were incoherent. The women were pleading with Stipendiary Magistrate De Groot for help and when they saw me turned their pleadings also to me. One woman, whom it was later revealed to be his mother, stated that her son had always behaved in this manner for years, however of late this behavior is daily. After much back and forth and me intervening by speaking to the young man, Stipendiary Magistrate De Groot placed him in the small lockup at Fort Wellington for a few days at which time I am sure he would return to his normal self.”

C.H. Strutt, Stipendiary Magistrate, 1843.

This extract taken from the Stipendiary Magistrate C.H. Strutts’ annual report provides some insight into the connection between mental health issues and police lockups in post emancipation British Guiana.  For much of the period, local officials used these facilities as a substitute for asylums to deal with individuals suffering from mental health issues.  Even before the first official asylum in the colony began operations in New Amsterdam 1867, police lockups served as unofficial holding spaces for persons considered insane.

Post-emancipation British Guiana saw to the introduction of police stations strategically located at the edge of African Guyanese villages. These villages emerged on the colony’s Coastal Plane along the plantation belt from Essequibo to Berbice. For example, on the West Coast of Berbice, in the villages such as Hopetown there is Fort Wellington police station, at Blairmont there is the Blairmont police station at the front, at the intersection of Weldaad and Belladrum villages there is the Weldaad Police Station. This distinct pattern continued in Essequibo where there were the Stewartville, Den Amstel, Parika, Anna Regina and Aurora police station and for Queenstown there is Capoey. Throughout the colony’s capital and along the East Coast of Demerara, police stations were located at Kitty, Plaisance, Beterverwagting, Vigilance, police station is found at the edge of Buxton/Friendship, whilst there was Cove and John (at the boundary of Victoria, Nabacalis and Golden Grove), just to name a few (History Gazette, No. 71, 1971).  Because the administrators of British Guiana were struggling to deal with many of the social problems such as mental health in these villages and the rest of the country, these stations served as quasi-asylums for villagers who displayed signs of “insanity (Gramaglia, 2013).”

Having lost control over the freed people who bought plantations and became villagers, colonial officials stereotyped them as “problematic,” “raucous to law and order” and “belligerent.” Some villagers, who were maroons that came out of hiding after slavery ended, were labeled as “aggressive.” Their mental soundness was always in question whenever there were confrontations with the rural constables and colonial officials. Many were quickly labeled insane, which meant that they were a danger to others. Oftentimes it meant that they were detained for weeks in police lockups, without seeing the magistrate.

The villagers also regarded the police stations as an intrusion since the planters always used these institutions to persecute and control them. There are several instances of villagers being locked up for extended periods with due recourse of the law or on suspicion of their mental incapacity.  For instance, in 1855 two men from Buxton village were locked up at the Vigilance police station for three months, because the rural constables labeled them insane. The police stations were therefore a daily reminder of villager’s inequality and inability to challenge the powers that be (Gramaglia, 2013). It is because of these experiences that the police stations became alien to these communities.

The New York Public Library. “British Guiana police.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1910.

Villagers also viewed rural constables in charge of these police stations with suspicion and fear (Danns, 1982). According to Allan Bent, the police in colonial society did not “exist to serve the expectations and needs of society;” (Bent, 1974) they were there to protect the colonizers. The result was further disdain for rural constables throughout British Guiana. The dislike also developed from the fact that the persons in charge of the police stations were white and although by the 1860s some rural constables were black; they were not creole blacks. Most of the rural constables were islanders, especially Barbadians. These circumstances only cemented the belief that such an institution was alien to the creoles (Danns, 1982).

Further, creoles from the villages developed their own biases for the rural constables. The rumors that followed the rural constables were many times fabricated and exaggerated due to these biases. The accusations increased even more when local newspapers constantly highlighted the wrongs of the “foreign constables (Daily Chronicle, 1865).” Creoles always questioned the rural constables’ “morals and values.” Villagers stereotyped the Barbadian rural constables which sometimes destroyed rural constables’ careers (De Barros, 2003).  There was a case involving rural constable R. Wren attached to Weldaad police station. A villager accused him of “improprieties.” The accusation sounded so authentic that the rural constable was suspended pending a hearing. It was during a confrontation between the accused and accuser that it revealed that it was all lies (Daily Chronicle, 1871). Instances like these cemented those stereotypes and ensured the mass “locking-up” of villagers as their mental health constantly came into question.

Most police stations were unsuitable to detain anyone as events following the Angel Gabriel 1856 Riot, which began in Georgetown quickly advanced to the Berbice, demonstrated.  During the riot Portuguese shops in Belladrum, Blairmont and in many other villages were destroyed. However, in Hopetown many villagers prevented one particular shop, owned by L. Gonsalves, from being burglarized and raged. When the rural constables from Fort Wellington police station and reinforcements from the other stations arrived on the scene, they arrested everyone they found outside the shop, including those who were protecting the business.  Those arrested, including three “lunatics” as the report noted were locked up at Fort Wellington police station. Twenty-three persons (both males and females) got placed in the lockup together. It was built to accommodate only three persons at a time. Two women and two men were eventually convicted, and several villagers were fined (Guiana Graphic Newspaper, 1856). Further, the lockup was poorly ventilated, and the police station did not have the cells to accommodate such numbers. The two elderly men fell who fell sick got released. Examples like these widened the rift between the villagers and the rural constables for a protracted time.

            Given the turbulent history that existed between the police stations, colonial officers, and the villages, Stipendiary Magistrate C.H. Strutt’s response to Georgie is no surprise. His attitude towards the young man’s state is indicative of the responses of villagers and many others in post-emancipation British Guiana. Whenever a villager portrayed mental health symptoms and other behaviors which were deemed troublesome, they were placed in the police lockups for periods ranging from a few hours to several days, until he or she “returned to their normal self.”

Rural constables during this era got no formal knowledge or training about mental health issues. The stigma affixed to persons suffering from such issues also gave the rural constables the “permission” to “brutalized” them. According to C.H. Strutt, upon his return his return to Fort Wellington police station days later, he enquired from Stipendiary Magistrate De Groot as to the welfare of Georgie.  Magistrate DeGroot reported that Georgie got a “sound thrashing” from the rural constable andhe quickly found his sanity and returned to the neighbouring village where he shares a house with his mother.”

Even the churches reached out to the rural constables to assist them in dealing with “lunatic” members of their congregation. In an 1853 report from St Michaels Church in, the catechist stated that it was a constant battle between himself and men from the neighboring village who were bent on disrupting Sunday morning church because of their “intoxication and lunatic behaviors.” He further noted that on two occasions he sent members of the congregation to Fort Wellington police station to get the rural constable who “promptly arrested the drunkard.” Later he found out that the congregant was not drunk but periodically would behave “irrationally even when unprovoked (HCPP, 1853).” In another report dated 1858, the catechist stated that church members identified three young men smoking “something” which was “highly repugnant to the nose” (the assumption here it might have been marijuana) behind the church building. They tipped off the catechist, when one man reacted to whatever he smoked by breaking the church windows. He was arrested, charged with vandalism, and locked up at Fort Wellington police station.

Persons who lived in proximity to these police stations and who suffered from any signs of mental illness were taken to the station houses. The responses of the rural constables and colonial officials were incarceration of the affected. This response for obvious reasons did not work and only worsened the mental state of the sick. British Guianas’ earliest asylum system to deal with the psychologically ill came into effect in June 1842. The system was part of Governor Henry Light’s social welfare project to ensure some form of common advancement in the colony. For many years, the conditions at the asylum were so unwholesome that the officials moved the structure. They eventually founded the “lunatic asylum in 1867 at Fort Canje near New Amsterdam, adjacent to the Berbice General Hospital (Gramaglia, 2003).”

Shammane Joseph Jackson 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 Department of History and Caribbean Studies 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.

Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in Guyana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Challenges facing the Guyana Prison Service

Mellissa Ifill

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

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

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

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

 Prison Conditions

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

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

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

Overcrowding & Inhumane Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

Inadequate Staffing

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

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


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

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

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

Reforming the Guyana Prison Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

An historical perspective on Guyana’s jails

Clare Anderson

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

HMPS Mazaruni, 19th century

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

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

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

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

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

Indentured Indian sugar workers, early 20th century

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

Mazaruni Prison, 2017. Photograph: Obrey James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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