In July of 2017, a fire destroyed the majority of the buildings that stood in the compound of the Georgetown Prison in Guyana’s capital. Four prisoners escaped and one warden was killed. Over 1000 people were imprisoned at the time in a space meant to hold less than 600 people. Just over a year earlier, in March 2016, 17 prisoners died and eight were injured after a fire spread in the Capital A Block of the prison. The setting of this fire arose out of prisoner’s frustration with structural deficiencies within the prison which included overcrowding, poor sanitation, and an infestation of pests. Also of relevance was that the overcrowding was caused in large part by the length of time individuals were being held on remand before trial. However, these events did not occur in a vacuum. The issues of overcrowding and the numbers of prisoners being held on remand for extended periods of time have been linked to varying forms of prisoner resistance since British rule.
Historically, prisons in British Guiana were used by colonial administrators to control and confine the labouring population, namely the formerly enslaved and indentured immigrants, within the plantation society. As a result, those of African and Asian descent were disproportionately policed and punished to deter others from engaging in ‘criminal’ activities. Most notably this occurred for breaches of contract and misdemeanours under the immigration ordinance. Whilst some prisoners adapted to the substandard living conditions and overtly punitive environment of the prison system, many sought to test these institutional practices. Critically, therefore, prisons quickly became sites of resistance and challenge for the labouring population as they attempted to alter their legal, social, and political situations.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, government inquiries and the reports of colonial authorities have urged change in the provision of the colony’s prison system, citing concerns disturbingly similar to those identified by the Commissions of Enquiry into the 2016 and 2017 fires. This included, among others, poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. As in recent years inquiries into these concerns were often a direct response to violent, every day, or official forms of prisoner’s resistance.
Due to the limited number of warders the prison system was often reliant on the compliance of prisoners to adhere to rules and regulations rather than force. As a result, when the prisoners felt powerless, they would often resort to uprisings as a way to challenge the system. Habitual offenders frequently took advantage of the lack of trained warders required to maintain discipline with the creation of gangs that threatened to overwhelm the balance of control. These groups included a range of differing classes, such as first offenders, juveniles, and those awaiting trial. Whilst attempts were made in the 1930s to alter certain aspects of the prison system, such as the separation of different classes of prisoners, these efforts were ultimately hampered due to budget constraints, and the need to manage and discipline the prison population. A lack of space, and facilities within Guyana’s prison system mean that those on remand continue to be held in close association with those imprisoned for committing violent crimes.
Rum, cannabis, and opium provided an escape from the hardships of labouring on plantations throughout much of the nineteenth century. And, having become firmly established within the culture of the labouring class the increased legislation introduced around the turn of the twentieth century unsurprisingly led to a significant rise in this form of resistance both inside and outside the prison walls. For many prisoners, substance use provides an escape from the anxieties of being imprisoned. Thus, unlike uprisings that involve acts of violence, most acts of resistance have involved everyday negotiations that have taken place between the prison population and the staff. This has included the consumption and trade of illicit substances, such as alcohol and drugs, the latter of which has mostly been trafficked by the prison staff for financial gain. Recently, much has been done to improve fencing, with the introduction of night-time surveillance, to help stem attempts by friends and family to throw contraband over the walls.
Hence, it can be seen that the use of alcohol and drugs within the prison is a trend that has continued into the twenty first century. Whilst the introduction of technology has led to a wider range of contraband in recent years (cell phones and sim cards), alcohol, and drugs continue to play an important role in helping to relieve the strictures of incarceration. In particular, cannabis remains a key drug within the prisons in connection to both escapism and resistance. Additionally, images and videos of participation in other illegal or banned activities, such as human ‘dog fights’, bring attention to the conditions in the prison system, both physical (the overcrowding) and mental (frustration and boredom).
As Guyana’s prison system continues to attract media attention and the concern of prison reform and human rights organisations (United Nations), history can be drawn on to highlight continuities in terms of the challenges of managing large numbers of prisoners with limited means. Despite some temporary successes for the prison population during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, resistance often led to additional or continued oppression. Yet, such acts of resistance continue. Since independence, a lack of resources and poor infrastructure has meant that the several commissions of enquiry have not resulted in systemic change. Further uprisings occurred in the summer of 2020 in response to continued deplorable conditions and worries that COVID-19 was spreading in the prison. It also provides a final sobering conclusion that little has changed in terms of the high rate of imprisonment in Guyana and the detrimental effects the system has had since the beginning of British rule in 1814.
The authors would like to thank Mellissa Ifill for her comments/feedback on an earlier draft of this blog.
Guyana’s prisons have been described as ‘potentially life-threatening’ and ‘not fit for human habitation’. These life-threatening conditions can be attributed to systemic and historically derived deficiencies that continue to plague Guyana’s Prison Service (GPS) today. These include overcrowding, poor infrastructure, violence, physical abuse and unsanitary conditions, all of which have a detrimental impact on the staff and prisoners that live and work there. Prison officers are not only detrimentally impacted by the prison environment and its decaying infrastructure (e.g., which induces psychological distress, depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use, violence, corruption, disorder, absenteeism and a high staff turnover) but their responsibilities often entail ‘physical exertion and mental anxiety’. This helps to explain why the international evidence shows prison officers are at a greater risk of mental ill-health than other occupational groups. In fact, being a prison officer is a dangerous and stressful job that involves daily intimidation and on occasion, actual physical violence. Nowhere is this truer than in Guyana. While the experience of prisoners in Guyana has been captured elsewhere (see Cameron, 2020; Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017), this blog focuses on the frequently forgotten prison staff who work across Guyana’s five prisons; three of which are colonial era prisons that were constructed and operated according to the needs of the colony (see Anderson et al. 2020); colonial legacies that are still evident today.
The post-colonial prison is shaped – haunted – by the colonial past and this is true for prison officers as well as the regimes, infrastructure and policies. Staff played a key role in the colonial prison as they were expected to use ‘their moral influence to encourage good behaviour’, provide educational classes and enforce labour, which often led to guards using ‘cart whips and cat o’ nine tails’ on prisoners to ensure compliance and productivity. The cruelty and mistreatment of prisoners by staff that plagued the colonial prison was attributable to a lack of regulation, which had created ‘a regime of fear and cruelty’ in some of Guyana’s jails. Although Regulations were finally introduced in the late 1800s outlining the duties of prison officers, which were implemented in line with British practices (e.g., CO 111/67, CO 116/207 and CO 111/384), it did not stop these abuses. Abuses that have not only been documented in the past but as the ensuing discussion will show, are still prevalent in Guyana’s prison service today.
Her Majesty’s Penal Service was changed to Guyana’s Prison Service in 1957 and was established by the Prison Act No. 26. Guyana’s Prison Service (GPS) aims ‘to provide a secure environment for Staff and Offenders’ and has just over 500 staff working in the service – 58% are men and 42% are women (GPS, 2017) – with the Director of Prisons having overall responsibility for all of the prisons in Guyana, while the Deputy Director holds responsibility for Operations. As nearly half of all GPS staff ‘are women and civilian staff who do not secure the majority of male prisoners’ there is a shortage of staff for the male estate – about 295 male prison personnel for around 2,074 male prisoners that comprise 96% of Guyana’s prison population – that results in a low staff to prisoner ratio, which has had ‘a significant impact on the personal security of inmates and guards alike’. Feelings of safety and security are integral to rehabilitation and building healthy prisons. Feeling safe is also the most important determinant of distress among prisoners and staff, illustrating that both safety and security are important issues that need to be addressed since the majority of prisoners (89%) felt less safe in prison than anywhere else they had lived (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017). In fact, safety and security are basic human needs, which if unsatisfied can actually exacerbate levels of violence, disorder and rule-breaking in prison (see Hoke and Demory, 2014). Although prisons have a dual role of public protection alongside the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, it has been unable to adequately fulfil either since its inception (see Ifill, 2019) as many of the problems facing GPS today, were also prevalent in the past.
The contemporary prison service in Guyana is plagued by the same problems evident in the colonial prison, which according to the Director of Prisons (2020) rests on ‘the absence of physical infrastructure and human resource’. In fact, the physical infrastructure remains the same as in colonial times, particularly in the colonial era prisons that have not really changed. Internationally, it is well documented that the prison environment (conditions and culture) can adversely affect staff and prisoners, particularly prisons described as ‘not fit for human habitation’ like those in Guyana. Such conditions also feed into and influence the way staff see and treat prisoners detained in these prisons. Research from the global north has continually shown that ‘the routine and bureaucratic denial of humanity in prison and the tendency to construct prisoners as the other ‘them’ creates spaces where inhumane treatment may occur…making brutality possible, even inevitable’ (Crawley, 2004). The use of violence by staff against inmates, the depersonalisation of prisoners (prisoners are merely bodies to be counted) and staff detachment are also well-documented techniques implemented by prison officers to cope with their job, which can also precipitate corruption. In fact, the prison environment, its culture and the high concentration of criminals in confined spaces ‘not only makes those deprived of their liberty prone to instigating corruption; it may equally serve as a catalyst for corrupt practices and abuse among prison service officers, particularly if coupled with a lack of accountability and oversight’ (UNODC, 2017). Thus, safety and security are also compromised by ‘widespread corruption, mismanagement, bribery, favouritism and dishonesty in the GPS’ as the correlation between levels of corruption and ill-treatment in prisons globally is well documented (see UNODC, 2017). Although incidents of violence and corruption are sporadic in GPS, they still occur. Prison officers often have fewer qualifications, less training, low morale, low salaries, fewer career opportunities and are often held in lower regard than other officials leaving them susceptible to corruption (Ifill, 2019; UNODC, 2017). This has led to calls to increase the pay of prison officers in Guyana to compensate for the daily risks they face and in attempt to eliminate corruption.
Corruption occurs on a continuum and can vary from turning a blind eye to contraband in prison to aiding escapes and undertaking financial misdemeanours. Although levels of corruption vary across Guyana’s prisons, levels of corruption have been described as concerning, with ‘High-Levels of Corruption’ being evident at the overcrowded and heavily criticised Lusignan prison (also described as ‘not fit for human habitation’). In fact, Minister Benn said, ‘we are losing more prison officers than we are getting due to corrupt practices.’ In Guyana in 2016, two hundred and thirty-nine prison officers – just under half of all officers (47%) employed by GPS – were charged and sanctioned with misconduct, that fell into two main areas; the possession of prohibited articles and assault on one another (GPS, 2017).
Possession of Prohibited Articles: Cigarettes, Cannabis and Rum: it is acknowledged that prisons are not closed and total institutions (if they ever were), which means contraband flows freely in and out of prisons via visitors, prisoners, civilians and delivery drivers, as well as prison staff. In fact, staff are one of the main supply routes for contraband, with 28% of inmates in Guyana reporting that staff brought drugs into prison (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017), which is supported by several high profile incidents across all of Guyana’s prisons (e.g., in New Amsterdam, Camp Street, Mazaruni and Timehri). The trade in contraband, particularly illegal drugs in prison, namely cannabis, is facilitated by prison wardens and Police Officers because it is ‘big business’ and there is a lot of money to be made. However, it also indicates corruption, illegal earnings and criminality, which is often accompanied by violence, and is increasingly being associated with (organised) criminal gangs (see Owen and Grigsby, 2012).
Violence and Assault: Shivs and Shanks: there are incidents of violence by staff against prisoners, by prisoners against staff and prisoners against prisoners, some of which have led to death. In fact, eight out of ten prisoners had witnessed inmates being beaten and a quarter said they had been attacked or beaten in the previous six months illustrating why prison was deemed to be an unsafe place (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017). Not only have there been instances of prisoners overpowering staff and stealing their weapons, which includes guns, but prisoners also create makeshift weapons which are then used to attack fellow inmates and/or staff, which has on occasion resulted in death:
Therefore, it can be seen that Guyana’s Prison Service continues to be haunted by its colonial past, and that includes its staff. During colonisation, the British blamed isolation, overcrowding and a lack of prospects on the low morale of prison officers. There were very few rules and regulations outlining their role, which meant violence and mistreatment were rife, but justified, as prisons, like the plantations contained dehumanised and often animalised bodies that led to an increase in the number of punishments being administered within the prisons. It is in this context that prison officers and prisoners occupy historical spaces of distress, decay and violence. In fact, the conditions and problems facing GPS today are similar to those in the colonial past despite the plethora of reports, commissions and recommendations that have been made over the years. All grades of prison personnel in the contemporary Guyanese Prison Service – as they did in the past – experience physical and mental exhaustion, poor health, stress, anxiety as well as being over worked and under paid, that has for some resulted in excessive alcohol use that according to Governor P.E. Wodehouse, could result in death. However, there is very little research on prison officers in Guyana, which is something the MNS in Guyana’s Jails project seeks to rectify. The dearth of research on the experience of prison officers in the global south means that research from the global north is often extrapolated and applied to explaining the experiences of prison personnel – as in this blog – despite its inapplicability and irrelevance, illustrating the need for research that captures the lived experiences of prison officers working in Guyana’s prisons. The role and impact of effective, well-trained and committed staff at all grades should not be underestimated since research – albeit from the global north – shows it can impact on staff motivation and retention; determine the success of a prison or new regime; impact on safety and security; everyone’s health and wellbeing; levels of distress, violence, drug use, self-harm and suicide; as well as recovery and rehabilitation. Although there have been calls for more professionalism and training in GPS, caution must be taken to ensure that the institutional reproduction and dominance of colonial practices does not take precedence and obscure the epistemologies and experiences of the global south that removes the colonised from their own history. An ‘erasure and forgetting’ known as colonial amnesia (see Kerrigan, 2020).
Tammy Ayres is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester, UK.
The author would like to thank Clare Anderson, Kellie Moss and Queenela Cameron for their comments/input on an earlier draft of this blog. Thanks, must also go to Kellie Moss for the photographs.
It drives one out of his mind, British Guiana drives us out of our minds.
In Rowa there is the court house, In Sodi is the police station, In Camesma is the prison. It drives one crazy, It is British Guiana. The court house in Wakenaam, The police station in Parika, The prison in Georgetown, Drive you crazy.
(Ved Prakash Vatuk. “Protest Songs of East Indians in British Guiana.”)
This post presents some initial thoughts on the connections between East Indian immigration and incarceration in Colonial British Guiana between 1838 and 1917 as so poignantly expressed through the lyrics of the East Indian Protest Song. Allusions to the period of East Indian immigration in British Guiana does not generally evoke images of prisons but disproportionate number of immigrants spent their period of indenture in this institution.
Each year, on average, magistrates served warrants on twenty percent of the indentured population in British Guiana, had a conviction rate above fifteen percent and an imprisonment rate of about seven percent (Bolland, 1981). This, according to one historian, “represented tens of thousands of prosecutions instituted by managers and overseers against labourers” and resulted in their stark overrepresentation in the colony’s penal system (Mohapatra, 1981). In 1874 for example of the 4,936 persons in the Georgetown prison, 3,148 were indentured labourers. This trend epitomizes the planters oft-quoted remark that the place of the indentured immigrant was either “at work, in hospital, or in gaol [prison],” and captures the connection between the prison system and the immigration schemes that emerged in Colonial British Guiana (Guyana Chronicle, 2014).
The arrival of East Indians in British Guiana coincided with Emancipation and the Village Movement, two significant developments that initiated labour scarcity. The gradual withdrawal of freed Africans from plantation labour led to the introduction of East Indian immigration and the expansion of the prison population due to exploitation and the stringent enforcement of the contract and the labour laws. These labour laws were heavily skewed against the immigrant, even though they stipulated the obligation of both the employer and the labourer. The plantocracy easily manipulated the laws and the courts system in general, to control the immigrants who could be prosecuted for refusal to commence work, or work left unfinished, absenteeism without authority, disorderly of threatening behaviour, neglect or even drunkenness (Dabydeen, 1987). As Guyanese historian Tota Mangar notes, “court trials were subjected to abuse and were, in many instances, reduced to a farce as official interpreters aligned with the plantocracy while the labourers had little opportunity of defending themselves” (Guyana Chronicle, 2014).
In 1838, East Indians comprised less than one percent of the total population. By 1851 this increased to six percent, jumped to 25.8 percent in 1871, and rose again to 42.2 percent in 1901 (NAG, 1901). The prison population followed the same trajectory: as immigration schemes expanded, the prison population expanded. Similarly, as the scheme declined in the early twentieth century the colony’s prison population noticeably declined. Although earlier prison reports differentiate between prisoner by race (white, coloured and black) and crimes committed rather than nationality, a look at the categories of crimes for which persons were incarcerated and the duration of sentences strongly suggests high rates of East Indian incarceration.
The number of annual convictions for offences against “the Masters and Servants Act including acts relating to indentured Indians” also alludes to a large incarcerated Indian population. The annual reports indicate that local authorities mainly convicted immigrants for this crime punishable by fines or imprisonment for periods of two weeks to two months. The average immigrant could not pay the fines thus, prison was often the only alternative. For instance, in 1840, of the 1403 persons incarcerated 951 served sentences of three months or fewer for breach of contract. By 1860, of the 4313 total prison population, 3005 served prison sentences of three months or fewer, while in 1880, of 8393 prisoners, 7459 served similar sentences. As the general prison population began declining in the waning year of immigration, the high rate of incarceration for persons serving sentences for three months or fewer remained constant. In 1900, for instance, 3045 of the 4610 persons incarcerated served sentences of three months or fewer. It was only after the abolition of immigration in 1917 that a perceptible decline can be observed, for example, in 1918, of 3367 1321 were incarcerated for this duration (TNA, British Guiana Blue Books, 1860, 1880, 1890, 1920).
Beginning in the 1880s Annual Prison Returns categorized convicted persons according to their nationality. The authority’s need to classify the prison population by nationality is of itself an indicator, not only of an increasing East Indian population in the jails, but also their disproportionate incarceration. For example, the total population of the colony for 1884 was 252,186. The East Indian segment of the population was 32,637 of which 15,251 were under indenture. The Annual Prison Returns for that year reveals the following: of the 4,659 persons incarcerated, there were 11 Madeirans, 36 Americans, 43 Chinese, 57 Africans, 84 Europeans, 97 other West Indians, 658 Barbadians, 1630 British Guianese, 2043 East Indians (NAG, 1884). While in this year East Indians represented 12.9 percent of the Colony’s total population, they represented 43.9 percent of persons in jail.
Associated with the rise in incarceration rates for immigrant labour was an exponential growth in prison locations in the colony. These prisons, interspersed along the sugar belt, ideally located for immigrants to serve short sentences. Planters continuously petitioned the local legislature for additional prison locations, complaining that in some area “five or six days might be spent in journeying to and from the prison where hard labour was to [be] perform[ed] so that short sentences of seven days or less were rendered ludicrous [and] an expensive waste of time” (NAG, 1860). In 1838, British Guiana boasted three prison locations in the three administrative counties–Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice–to serve the colony’s 65,556 inhabitants. The two prisons at Georgetown and New Amsterdam, pre-dated British occupation (1803), while the Wakenaam Goal was established in 1837. At indenture’s abolition in 1917, the colony, with a population of 298,188 had eleven prison locations (NAG, 1860).
During the seventy-nine years of indentureship, the colony established Capoey Gaol (1838), Her Majesty’s Penal Settlement Mazaruni (HMPS) (1842), Fellowship Gaol (1868), Mahaica (1868), Suddie (1874), Best (1879), Number 63 Gaol (1888), and Morawhanna (1898) (Adams, 2010). After the abolition of the indentureship system most of these prisons became uninhabited and closed for lack of inmates, thus by 1920 only Georgetown, New Amsterdam, HMPS Mazaruni and Morawhanna prisons remained open (NAG, 1921). This strongly suggests that immigration was the driving impetus for prison expansion. The country currently has five prison sites for its 750,000 inhabitants.
These statistics elicit a number of questions including: what were prison experiences like for these immigrants? What accommodations, if any, were made for them in the system? How, in other words, was the penal system, and the administrative structures that supported it, transformed by the presence of this new group of people whom those in power wished to control? Other historians have established a connection between immigration and increasing mental health issues among East Indian immigrants. (Moss, 2020) To what extent did incarceration influence this phenomenon or did mental health issues influence incarceration? I anticipate that as our team continue its research into Mental Health, Neurological Disorders and Substance Abuse in Guyana’s jails, we will uncover answers to these questions.
of psychoactive substances in Guyana was established in the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries through varied national and international drug
control initiatives related to opium, cannabis, and the supervision of
pharmaceutical products. As in other colonies, early measures were implemented
as a means of social control for the economically disadvantaged. Missionaries
were amongst the first to draw attention to the use of psychotropic substances
by Indigenous peoples (known as Amerindians) in association with spiritual and
recreational experiences. The Accaway’s, who inhabited Upper Demerara, Mazaruni,
and the Putaro districts, produced a fermented beverage known as piwari for
feasts (Bernau, 1847). Traditionally prepared for male consumption,
missionaries noted that women would chew cassava bread into a pulp adding water
until fermented. The men would then drink until they were in a state of ‘beastly
intoxication’, or the trough (generally a canoe used for the purpose of fermentation)
was empty (Duff, 1866). In addition to spiritual and recreational purposes,
Amerindians also utilised fermented beverages for medicinal purposes, such as
reducing fever (quassia bark), stomach ache (mauby bark, also known as a ‘decoction
of woods’), and enriching the blood (sorrel plant). To motivate and organise
the Indigenous population, colonial agents encouraged, and fostered their
dependency on psychotropic substances. This included distilled spirits, such as
rum or brandy (Bernau, 1847). This rapid introduction to distilled spirits, in
addition to European influence on habits of consumption, resulted in social
dependencies that tied the Amerindian labour force to the colonial system. Although
informal, the fostering of chemical dependencies played a pivotal role in the
political and economic shaping of the colony, as the colonial authorities increasingly
used this technique as a means to control those on the fringes of society.
Piwarry Feast of the Accaway Tribe: Wellcome
EPB/B/13446, Bernau, J. H.
(John Henry), Missionary
Labours in British Guiana (John Farquhar
Shaw, London, 1847).
Legislation to criminalise the use of psychoactive substances
was first introduced in Guyana in 1838, following the termination of the
apprenticeship system, through which the formerly enslaved were tied to their
previous owners for a four-year period. To avoid a decline in plantation labour
the colonial government introduced numerous measures to restrict African
movement, including in 1839 an ordinance for the ‘relief of the destitute poor’
(TNA, CO 113/1).This act granted the Court of Policy
(legislative council) the power to ‘set to work’ those unable to support
themselves (TNA, CO 113/1). In accordance with the act, anyone caught
absconding, drunk, introducing, or attempting to
introduce spiritous or fermented liquors into the workhouses could be sentenced
to hard labour in prison for one month (TNA, CO 113/1). Despite the introduction of such measures
the formerly enslaved continued to leave sugar estates in favour of villages
and urban centres. To offset this emerging labour vacuum plantation owners
imported indentured contract labourers from Africa, Asia, and Europe (TNA, CO
a result of its introduction to Guyana by indentured immigrants from South Asia
(known as East Indians), the cultivation of Indian hemp, more commonly known as
cannabis, quickly became a thriving cottage industry. Widely believed to have
spiritual and medicinal connotations, the cultivation and use of the plant had
long been a part of Hindu tradition (Russo, 2005). Accepted by plantation owners in the Caribbean, the
use of cannabis was, to a certain extent, even promoted as a means of enhancing
labourers’ productivity (Jankowiak & Bradburd, 2003). As one of the
oldest-known plants in Asia cannabis was prepared and used in various forms. Bhang,
the dried leaves of the plant, being the cheapest and most widespread, was reported
by British medical officers to produce a ‘quiet, pleasant delirium’. The sticky
yellow resin of the plant known as charas (hashish), on the other hand, was believed
to cause ‘excitement attended with violence’. The drug was also used in the
form of a sweetmeat called majun, and smoked as ganja, which was made from the plants
dried flower tops. The latter preparation was the one generally chosen among
indentured labourers in the colony owing to its low cost (British Medical
As the nineteenth century progressed official
opposition to cannabis first arose in recognition of the drug’s alleged debilitating
effects. They were concerned that indentured labourers were spending more time
and effort growing cannabis than attending to their work on the estates. Furthermore,
colonial authorities also expressed unease regarding the excessive use of cannabis,
which some felt had the tendency to increase rather than reduce confrontation, particularly
in hostile situations. Concerns regarding the effects of the drug continued to grow
as the use of cannabis, which was believed to have been initially confined to
Hindu men, spread amongst the different ethnic groups on the estates (British
Medical Journal, 1893). Owing to the increased number of incidents being attributed
to substance abuse, an ordinance to regulate the sale of opium and bhang was
introduced to the colony in 1861 (TNA, CO 113/4). The primary focus of the act was
to restrict the access of Indian and Chinese immigrants to the drug (TNA, CO
113/4). The evidence for
this legislation, however, was based on little more than the casual
observations of plantation owners. Critics
used evidence of substance abuse to feed into larger classifications and ideas
about race and its connection to moral character (TNA, CO 113/8). Debates regarding
the use of psychotropic substances and their control are therefore rooted
historically in much wider concerns related to colonial power structures, and the
rights and privileges of the labouring population.
With recurrent concerns regarding the use
of opium and cannabis in Guyana, namely the link between insanity and substance
abuse, rum was rapidly introduced by plantation owners as an alternative
(British Medical Journal, 1893). Unlike cannabis, and its indirect benefits as
a labour enhancer, the planters directly profited from the production and
distribution of rum (TNA, CO 113/8). Interested in creating a captive consumer
class, official tolerance in the Caribbean regarding the use of rum was also predominantly
favoured by colonial authorities. Simultaneously, the sanctioned access to
alcohol for labourers was a powerful incentive for immigrants to engage in
plantation work. Unsurprisingly, the consumption of alcohol dramatically increased
during this period as indentured immigrants became increasingly reliant on its effects
to obscure the misery of plantation life. The consolidation of laws relating to
indentured immigrants in 1873, namely those in connection to the penalties for
drunk and disorderly conduct, highlight the extent of its escalation as
penalties for drunk and disorderly conduct were further outlined (TNA, CO
113/5).By positing a need for such measures,
the plantation owners served to justify their exploitative and oppressive
actions towards the labourers.
the drive to control psychoactive substances began in 1912 at the International
Opium Convention at the Hague (TNA, CO 113/13). Despite the lack of agreement
amongst the delegates a discussion on cannabis had lasting repercussions for Guyana
as legislation was introduced to further regulate the importation and sale of
Indian Hemp in 1913 (TNA, CO 113/13). Despite the lack of scientific or medical
data to support these international debates cannabis was designated from this
point as a dangerous drug. The
cultivation and importation of cannabis was officially criminalised in Guyana following
the introduction of the 1938 Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. Later amendments followed
Guyana’s independence with the United Nations Convention against the Illicit
Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988, which required
states to adopt measures to establish as a criminal offence any activity
related to narcotic drugs (CARICOM Report, 2018). This demand continues to
place pressure on Guyana’s overstretched prison system (see Ayres, 2020).
Throughout the history of Guyana, the use of psychotropic substances has been determined therefore, by numerous factors, such as cultural expectations and economic motivations. Drugs became a reward to encourage productivity, but also led to debts and addictions, all of which ensured the economically disadvantaged remained bound to their employers. The stimulating properties of these substances and their ability to establish and solidify bonds, whether economic, cultural or religious, has ensured their enduring and widespread demand from pre-colonisation to the present day.
Prison Service does not attract much public acknowledgement, attention or
scrutiny under normal circumstances. Great awareness of and discussion on the
GPS occur only when something goes drastically wrong – and much has gone
drastically wrong over the past two decades – these include prisoners escaping,
rioting, protesting, setting fires (including one in 2016 Georgetown prison
that resulted in the death of to 17 prisoners), attacking and sometimes killing
prison officers and trafficking illegal items in prison. Additionally
discussions about the conditions and nature of imprisonment usually only ensue
in the aftermath of the preceding ‘gone wrongs’ or following high profile
crimes. Despite this lack of continuous public attention, the Guyana Prison
Service (GPS) has embarked upon a process to change from a mainly punitive to a
mainly rehabilitative institution. This effort at transformation however has
been difficult since the security
institution has been confronted with and has to address numerous systemic and
historically derived deficiencies and challenges. The latter will be the
subject of this blog post.
Prison Service (GPS) was created under Section 4A of the Prison Act, Chapter
11:01, as a public authority, but the Act does not specify its essential
functions. Notwithstanding this oversight, the GPS has an important function to
perform in the criminal justice system. The main responsibility of the Guyana
Prison Service as noted in its submission to the Disciplined Forces Commission
(2004) is “to ensure the safe custody of the offenders who have violated the
law of the land and are placed in physical confinement (Prisons) in order to
protect the society”.
corrective institution, the GPS has the dual responsibility of protecting
society by creating secure incarceration arrangements while simultaneously
engaging in activities and initiatives to facilitate the rehabilitation and
reintegration of offenders into the society. This dual function is premised
upon an inherited conventional notion of justice that views prisons as public
liabilities/burdens rather than as an important tool in the societal
transformation process and than can be used to generate economic resources
while rehabilitating the offender.
and in the contemporary era, the Guyana Prison Service has been unable to
adequately fulfil this dual function of protecting the society and
rehabilitating lawbreakers as it has continually been deficient, particularly
in terms of financial resources, accommodation and qualified staff.
reports over the past decades graphically underscore the depressing conditions
in Guyana’s prisons. The United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and
Labor annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices detail the ongoing
crisis in the GPS. Confirming the dismal circumstances in Guyana’s prisons was
a 2017 Citizen Security Strengthening Programme prison survey report that was
funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. These studies reaffirmed the
findings of previous studies such as the 2001 Prison Reform Report that was
conducted by the International Consultancy Group of the British Government
Cabinet Office Centre for Management and Policy Studies; the Report of Board of
Inquiry into the Escape of Five Prisoners from Georgetown Prison on February
23, 2002; The Guyana Prison Service 2001-2011 Strategic Development Plan; the
Criminal Law Review Committee Report; The Report of the Disciplined Services
Commission submitted to the National Assembly in May 2004; The 2009 Ministry of
Home Affairs Review of the Guyana Prison Service.
concerns and problems highlighted in the aforementioned studies are:
which is inimical to rehabilitation and reintegration in society;
personnel, arrangements and equipment – i.e insufficient monitoring and warning
mechanisms in the prisons;
Inhumane conditions in
the prisons that both staff and prisoners have to endure;
Multiple violations of
prisoners’ human rights;
alternatives to incarceration offered by the criminal justice system.
& Inhumane Conditions
Guyana has six
main prisons located in all three counties of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice,
one of which caters for female prisoners. These are Georgetown [which prior to
the massive fire that razed the wooden buildings had an official capacity of
600], New Amsterdam (Male) that is designed to accommodate 275 individuals, New
Amsterdam (Female) which has an official capacity of 75, Mazaruni which has an
official capacity of 390, Lusignan which accommodates 120 and Timehri which was
designed to cater for 90. The total official capacity for all six prisons prior
to the fire was 1550. Overcrowding has always been a feature of the prison
locations and the three largest prisons, Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam
have been the most problematic, with the problems magnified in the former. At
August 31, 2019, Guyana’s prisons housed 2099 prisoners.
housed 477 – exceeding its male capacity by 133 and under its female capacity
(current under construction) housed 354 – under its capacity by 36;
housed 147, exceeding capacity by 27;
128, over its capacity by 38;
993 prisoners are housed at Georgetown A & B locations which are still
emergency housing arrangements that vastly exceed capacity.
In the wake of
the 2016 fire that razed the wood prison in Georgetown, overcrowding has worsened.
Just under 1/3 of the prison population are currently housed in sheds in a
field adjoining Lusignan Prison and these prisoners face an extremely harsh and
inhumane existence including inadequate water and sanitation, poorly prepared meals; congested
filthy blocks; some are forced to sleep on the floor others on filthy
mattresses. Health care is inadequate and rehabilitative training or
recreational activities are minimal to none. According to the US Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in its 2018 Country Report on Human Rights
Practices for Guyana, “Prison and jail conditions, particularly in police
holding cells, were reportedly harsh and potentially life threatening due to
overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions.” Meanwhile
the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent reported in 2017
that the conditions at the Lusignan Prison were horrific and that the cells
were not suitable for human habitation. According to the report, prisoners
complained of grossly unsanitary conditions including inadequate potable water,
lengthy confinement in their cells with limited opportunities for sunlight.
convicted prisoners, a large numbers of remand prisoners awaiting trial are
forced to live in these circumstances and their frustration can intensify as
they face court delays, postponements and lockdowns for extensive periods since
the prison system is understaffed. The preceding conditions not only violate
the human rights of prisoners but they also force prison officials to work in
insecure and dismal conditions and simultaneously place the security of both
prisoners and officers at risk. Apart from Georgetown which is under
construction, all the prisons are old; overcrowded with little space to institute
comprehensive programmes to effectively rehabilitate prisoners, decaying
physically, structurally insecure and in dire need of renovation or rebuilding.
Altogether these circumstances have proven to be unsafe for both correctional
officers and inmates alike. The newspaper headlines over the past two decades
tell the story: Stabroek News February 25, 2010 “Public Safety…Inside Story:
The problems of the Prison Service; Stabroek News February 7, 2010 “Fatal
Prison Brawl …Inmate had Ranted about Killing Someone.”; Kaieteur News February
15, 2011 “Officers Fear Security Threat at Georgetown Prison”; Kaieteur News
March 1, 2011 “Dwindling Prison Staff Will be Dire for Administration.”; Kaieteur News
2019 “Prison Service Understaffed, Overcrowding still an issue”;
https://www.rt.com › World news Jul 10, 2017 “Inmates set
fire to Guyana prison, 4 escape, 1 officer killed …”;
Police stand guard outside Georgetown Prison after a
riot and fire at the facility in Georgetown, Guyana, Thursday, March 3, 2016.
17 prisoners died in the fire as they protested conditions inside the prison in
the capital of the South American country, authorities said. (AP Photo/Bert
In 2003, the
authorised strength of the GPS was 452 while the number of officers employed
was 369 which within the context of significant increase in the overall number
of prisoners and in particular violent prisoners, endangers both officers and
inmates (Disciplined Forces Commission Report 2004). In 2019, the GPS staff was
just over 500 and it was short of staff by 101. Note also that the statistics
hide the fact that many of the prison officers are women and civilian staff who
do not secure the majority of male prisoners.
The Prison Act
Chapter 11:01 requires that, “Every prison officer shall at all times carefully
watch the prisoners and shall use the utmost vigilance to promote industry.”
However, satisfying this condition is impossible in times when one prison
warder has responsibility for three locations simultaneously.
The GPS noted
as far back as 2003 that its greatest challenge to training officers is
“recruiting … persons with the requisite qualifications/academic ability
(Disciplined Forces Commission Report 2003, 251). This problem has persisted.
Consequently, staff levels continue to be inadequate and prison officers are
not properly trained to properly supervise the sizeable number of petty
offenders who are given custodial sentences and the growing number of violent
offenders. Security is further compromised with reports of widespread
corruption, mismanagement, bribery, favouritism and dishonesty in the GPS. It
is also reported that visitors pay prison officers to smuggle cell phones to
family members in prison. Officers are also reported to sell marijuana directly
to prisoners who in turn sell to other inmates. Raids conducted by the GPS
always unearth contraband items that likely were brought into the prison by
officers. Again, news reports tell the story: Guyana Standard June 19, 2019
“Prison officer allegedly caught with weed at Camp Street …”
https://www.guyanastandard.com › Court; Demerara Waves October 25, 2016 “Female
prison officer allegedly caught smuggling ganja inside the New Amsterdam Jail”;
INews Guyana Mar 5, 2019 “Drugs, weapons seized in Lusignan Prison raid”
https://www.inewsguyana.com › Crime.
Prohibited and illegal items found at the Lusignan
Prison [Guyana Police Force photo Mar 5, 2019]
Prohibited and illegal items found at the Georgetown Prison
[Guyana Police Force photo Dec. 8, 2018]
Guyana Prison Service
attention has been placed on reforming law enforcement and the judicial system
in Guyana, far less attention has been placed on comprehensive reform for
correctional institutions and the penal system in general. The three systems,
however, are inextricably connected within the criminal justice system and it
is also necessary that sufficient attention be paid to the needs of the penal
for improving the system that have emanated from the previously mentioned
capacity, renovating and transforming the Mazaruni Prison to house high profile
Increasing staff levels
and training to deal with increasing number of inmates;
policies including salary structures to ensure qualified persons are employed
and those that perform with distinction are promoted;
Auditing all prisoners,
separating and accommodating them according to security need, audit and release
remand prisoners in appropriate instances;
Create a manual that
sets out security standards and procedures and create monitoring systems to
oversee their implementation;
between the GPS, the GPF and the judiciary since the prisons are negatively
affected by deficiencies in the court system.
these recommendations, the GPS has been targeted for reform and a number of
initiatives have been undertaken, particularly over the past decade to
transform the prison environment, improve professionalism among prison officers
and employ more effective restoration and reintegration strategies. These
Passage of the Prison (Amendment) Bill 2009 to
modernise the prison service, enhance security within the prisons and offer
increased protection for officers but which could contribute to further abuse
of prisoners by prison officers;
Separation of first time young offenders from hardened
Introduction and review of skills training and
behavioural change programmes;
Conducting human rights training and other
professional training programmes for recruits;
Establishment of a sentence management board to assist
in the management of the sentences of convicted prisoners, including vulnerable
prisoners or those suffering from any disabilities;
Establishment of Prison Visiting Committees which
institutionalise civilian oversight of prisons, monitor the condition in
prisons and seek to ensure the protection of inmates’ human rights;
Design of the Justice Reform Sector Programme which
has placed emphasis on eliminating the backlog in both the civil and criminal
cases, upgrading the court environment, digitising the court registries,
training prosecutors and enhancing legislation and court procedures for
Magistrates and Judges, training prosecutors and mediators in alternative
sentencing systems to reduce the overcrowding in the prisons.
transformation process has commenced but there is much, much more work to be
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the colonial administration of British Guiana managed over a dozen jails, three of which still stand today. These are: Camp Street (Georgetown), New Amsterdam, and Mazaruni. The history of prison building and incarceration in British Guiana was the focus of a recently completed project, funded by the British Academy and conducted by researchers from the University of Guyana and the University of Leicester. The project asked questions about the role of prisons in the colonial justice system, and about historical patterns and experiences of imprisonment. It sought to find out whether history can offer lessons from the past that might be useful for understanding jails today.
The project team comprised myself and Dr Kellie Moss (Leicester) and Dr Mellissa Ifill and Estherine Adams (Guyana). Together, we undertook extensive research on colonial-era records held in our respective national archives, where we discovered a rich history of continuity and change. We found that colonial prison administrators kept coming back to the question ‘what is prison for?’ From that stemmed near-continual discussion of the same topics. These included the desirability of the separate treatment of different kinds of offenders (and adults and juveniles); the role of religion in rehabilitation; the deficiencies of prison infrastructure; prison security and escape; the morale of prison officers; and the education and training of inmates.
We presented some of our research to a group of serving prison officers, in autumn 2018, and had the opportunity to visit Mazaruni and New Amsterdam. Three things became immediately apparent. First, a great deal of colonial-era infrastructure survives today. Second, at least some of the daily rhythms of incarceration (including modern prison regulations) date from the British period. Third, there remain many parallels between the past and the present, regarding the active debate of exactly those issues that were discussed in the past.
and Georgetown Prisons are the oldest operating prisons in Guyana. They were
built by the Dutch, and extended by the British after they took
control of the colony in 1814. Later,
in 1843, the British constructed Her Majesty’s
Penal Settlement (HMPS) Mazaruni, near Berbice. They also built numerous
other district prisons, along with several ‘lock-ups’ in the more remote
regions. The government of Guyana built the other two modern institutions, Timehri
and Lusignan, following Independence in 1966.
The project found that the history of Guyana’s jails is intertwined with the history of colonialism, notably enslavement, immigration, and population management. During the era of slavery, the owners of enslaved persons punished their human property for what they perceived as labour infractions or ill-discipline, often using extremely brutal measures. After emancipation, the colonial state took on this role, and this was the background to the development of prisons in the 1830s and 1840s. The British imprisoned emancipated slaves and others, including Asian indentured labourers, for a range of offences. These included crimes against property, but also what they called ‘idleness’, and breaches of harsh labour laws, including unauthorised absence from home or work.
The project also discovered that the architectural design of and daily regimes instituted in Guyana’s prisons were strongly influenced by changing European and American thinking about their ideal form and function. The British adapted and built jails according to ‘modern’ prison design. Ideally, prisoners would occupy individual cells, and they would be punished and rehabilitated through a programme of education, work, training and Christian instruction. One notable feature of nineteenth-century punishment was the use of prisoners in colonial building projects. Inmates built and repaired streets and pavements, and constructed parts of the Sea Wall – in the latter case including through the draft of prisoners from Mazaruni to Georgetown. However, despite Britain’s claim to penal ‘modernity’, prisons could be violent places in which prisoners were chained, flogged or placed on harsh rations. Georgetown prison even had a treadmill, which constituted an extreme form of physical punishment.
From the very earliest days, where there were efforts to reform and rehabilitate prisoners, they were often frustrated by a lack of resource and difficulties in recruiting guards and other personnel. In large part, these failures reflected the fact that the British never came to a firm conclusion on the rationale for incarceration. Rather, jails always served a variety of purposes, and these were often incompatible with each other. For example, though the British wanted to use jails for different types of offenders, the pressure of numbers meant that prisoners were often transferred to inappropriate locations, and this put a strain on prisoner training, education and work. Also, guards often left employment, or retired early, due to stress and overwork. There even erupted various scandals where it emerged that guards had violently beaten and mistreated prisoners. This led to the establishment of a Board of Prisons in 1862, and the appointment of an Inspector General of Prisons from 1879. These measures increased government regulation over prisons, and enabled some positive interventions such as the introduction of tickets-of-leave (or what we would now call probation), which helped to rehabilitate and resettle inmates.
Several other themes emerged during our research project, notably regarding the mental health of inmates and guards. For example, we found archives that suggested that historically there was excessive consumption of alcohol (by inmates and guards), and that inmates routinely smoked marijuana. We also discovered that some prisoners hallucinated or had delusions, became suicidal, or were transferred to the ‘lunatic asylum’ in New Amsterdam. This led the research team to develop a more focused project, with the goal of exploring issues around the prevalence of mental, neurological, and substance abuse (MNS) disorders in Guyana’s jails. A collaboration between the universities of Leicester and Guyana, in partnership with the Guyana Prison Service and HMP Leicester, this project is both historical and contemporary. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, it will run until the autumn of 2021.
Social scientists know that attention to the relationship between lives and environments, and the production of an evidence base, are vital for successful research impact in a field now known as ‘global mental health’. As well as understanding individual health, we need to be sensitive to history, society and culture. Recently, researchers have argued that western concepts and models of MNS disorders require refinement, so that they do not produce misconceived diagnosis or become neo-colonial in their application of knowledge on a problem defined in the West. Our earlier historical research, against the background of this concern, forms the background to our new project.
The historians on the team, now including also Shammane Joseph Jackson and Dr Deborah Toner, are returning to the archives. Our team of anthropologists, criminologists, political scientists, and sociologists – Dr Tammy Ayres, Queenela Cameron, Professor Martin Halliwell, Dr Dylan Kerrigan, Di Levine and Dr Kristy Warren – are currently examining modern records and undertaking interviews, and will be running focus group workshops, with prisoners, prison officers, and prisoners’ families. Some of the things we want to find out about are how different communities – and men, women and youths – define/ defined and experience/ experienced MNS disorders; what constitutes/ constituted MNS disorders management and welfare provision; and how Empire and Independence impacted on prevalence, representations and experiences.
We want to see if it is possible to connect present-day challenges associated with MNS disorders to the history and legacies of the British Empire in Guyana. Our hypothesis is that the existence of MNS disorders in jails today can be traced back to the British colonial period. Thus, they cannot be disconnected from the country’s history as a sugar colony that employed and controlled indigenous people (Amerindians), enslaved Africans, and indentured labourers. We hypothesize that Empire created particular forms of trauma, shaped demography and religious practice, and instituted patterns of population control including through the building of jails. We seek to render this history actively part of the process of change today, by connecting new historical work to new research in and around prisons in Guyana today.