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suspension of this vital stress-reliever and depression-combatant implies that many prisoners were likely to become withdrawn, easily agitated, disruptive, fight amongst themselves, experience appetite loss, and harbour escape and/or suicidal thoughts.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

COVID-19 in Guyana’s Prisons

By Clare Anderson, Mellissa Ifill, Remi Anderson & Shammane Joseph-Jackson.

All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on prisons, particularly where institutions are overcrowded. In Guyana, where prison capacity hovers at around 125%, until 15 September 2020, no prisoners were known to have had the virus, but on that day two prisoners at Lusignan Holding Bay tested positive. COVID-19 quickly spread in the prison, and by the end of the month 218 inmates had returned positive tests. To date, the overwhelming majority of infections in the prison system are in this location (around 70%). This is due to the fact that Lusignan is the main prison for new admissions, which accounts for the majority of new cases.  The others were mainly split between Timehri and Mazaruni, with smaller numbers in New Amsterdam and Georgetown (Camp Street). Up to now, October 2021, one prisoner has died at Mazaruni, though following the Lusignan infections a hunger strike and attempted outbreak led to the death of two inmates who were shot dead whilst trying to escape.

In the current pandemic, Guyana’s prisons have attracted even less than normal attention and resources. With the exception of public statements by the Guyana Human Rights Association, civil society has largely been unresponsive to the plight of prisoners in COVID-19. It has recommended that all sentences for possession of marijuana or other secondary category drugs be commuted to time served, all remand prisoners for non-violent crimes be reviewed and bail reduced, all prisoners whose sentences are within three months of completion be released early, and all women prisoners for non-violent offences be commuted.

Pandemic prison guidelines were initially developed from the more general guidelines issued by the Ministry of Public Health and National COVID-19 Task Force, and also influenced by best practices yielded from the 2020 International Conference for Prison Services in Latin America and the Caribbean. Guidelines included the establishment of isolation and quarantine areas, early release of some inmates, setting up of virtual courts, suspension of prison visits, new staff work schedules (14 days on/ 14 days off, to reduce ingress and egress), and new sanitation and cleaning practices. Since last autumn, these were augmented with the mandatory use of facemasks for inmates and staff, testing of new admissions, and the provision of buses for staff – to mitigate the risk of infection while travelling to and from work. Staff are briefed in daily meetings, with frontline officers required to oversee daily operations, ensuring that safety measures are adhered to or alternative arrangements put in place.

The safety measures seem to have worked well within the institutional, systemic, resource and infrastructural constraints of the prison system. There has been a reduction in the inmate population, the result of close collaboration between the judiciary and the prison system, and the more routine use of bail and community service sentencing. However, there is no question too that the pandemic has exacerbated chronic staff shortages, including through fear and concerns about safety. The remoteness of some sites, such as Mazaruni prison, has further added to these concerns as vaccination rates among staff remain significantly lower than elsewhere in the service. Staff absenteeism led to increased incidences of agitation among inmates, and complaints and demands to see the welfare and medical officers. Prisoner concerns included lost opportunities to work and earn; remission of sentences; loss of family visits; inability of some families to take advantage of virtual visits; and poor internet capacity which interrupted virtual visits with attorneys and families and caused trials to be rescheduled.

Prisons present ideal conditions for viral transmission, and the prevention of social contact in them has been a priority in numerous global locations. Overall, the cautious and pragmatic approach of the Guyana Prison Service during the early months of the pandemic impacted on prisoners’ access to justice and rehabilitation, and increased tensions inside the jails. Moreover, though there have been attempts to limit it, the ingress and egress of staff and supplies means that it is not possible altogether to eliminate the entry of the virus into prisons.

Later on, digital technologies enabled the resumption of trials and visitations. However, these digital strategies, while useful and reportedly spurring the courts on to increased productivity, have removed the human centred approach in circumstances where prisoners and their families are not entirely familiar – or even familiar at all – with new technological innovations. It is important therefore, that care is taken not to perpetuate inadvertent discrimination in such contexts. And, as Guyana rolls out its vaccination programme the cost of this is in terms of enhancing inequalities for some sectors of the population remains to be seen. Important questions for the future also remain. Will the measures instigated over the past year remain effective? And what will be the long-term impact of the pandemic on the health and mental well-being of staff and inmates?

This research was a collaboration between the University of Leicester and University of Guyana, in partnership with the Guyana Prison Service. It was funded by the University of Leicester’s QR Global Challenges Research Fund (Research England) and led by Professor Clare Anderson.

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.

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

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

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

Cover page of the 2016 Camp Street Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Printed for the Colonial Office – the 1872 report

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

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

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

Prison Conversations

Queenela Cameron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queenela Cameron is a research associate on the ESRC GCRF project Mental Health, Neurological and Substance Abuse Disorders in Guyana’s Jails, 1825 to the present day. She is also a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Guyana.

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.

Barriers to Rehabilitation in Guyanese Prisons

Kristy Warren

The ‘Penal System’ is said to have two functions: the protection of society and rehabilitation. These are set out to sometimes be at odds and also both undermined by similar forces.

Guyana Prison Service Training Unit 1974

Last October, during an event held to mark Guyana Prison Service (GPS) week, Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels addressed the importance of prisoner rehabilitation. He said that the punitive measures favoured by many do not help to increase security in the long term. Rather, Samuels explained, rehabilitation benefited not only prisoners but was also necessary for the security of individuals and society.

Samuel’s vision of rehabilitation includes academic and vocational training, alongside programmes for addressing the psychological and social needs of prisoners. The attempt to facilitate a robust rehabilitation programme faces a number of barriers within prison. This includes a lack of funding for rehabilitation programmes, issues of attracting and retaining qualified educators and trainers, overcrowding and a lack infrastructure suitable for such programmes. Some of these issues have existed for a very long time but have been exasperated in more recent years. This is in part because of fires which destroyed parts of two facilities over the past four years which led to an even further reduction of space available for holding prisoners. As a result, cafeterias and training areas have been turned into cells in a number of the facilities. 

The long term success of rehabilitation programmes is challenged by what ex-prisoners face once released from prison. For stigma against ex-prisoners remains along with decreased employment opportunities. Some former prisoners also face a lack of sustained support from family and friends.

The present goals for rehabilitating prisoners and the barriers faced echoes issues faced by GPS in the 1970s. In the summer of 1974 the ‘Crime and the Penal System in Guyana’ conference was hosted by the University of Guyana. This was the first such conference held in Guyana and the second in the ‘Caribbean region.’ It brought together researchers and practitioners to explore studies concerning crime as well as the experience had on the ground by those working in the criminal justice system and prisons. The aim was to create a ‘cooperative approach’ among the various ‘branches of the criminal justice system’ in Guyana in order to better face the issue of crime in society.

At this conference Edwin Pratt presented a ‘Report on the Operation of the Guyana Prison Service’ which had been prepared by the staff of the GPS Training Unit. The report began by outlining what they felt was the purpose of the ‘penal system’ which is outlined in the quote at the beginning of this blog. The report explains that the tension between rehabilitation and security is in part due to prison infrastructure. For maximum security prisons were set up to keep prisoners inside and did not have the facilities needed for the ‘meaningful rehabilitation of inmates.’ It explained that a certain amount of freedom was needed in order to bring about true rehabilitation which was in conflict with the aim of maintaining maximum security.  Furthermore, a lack of finances meant that there not enough money to run an effective rehabilitation programme or maintain security. The report called on the government to make ‘the penal system’ more of a ‘priority.’

Later on in the report is a description of prisoners as a ‘section of the nation’s human resources.’ The way in which prisoners are described here gives some indication of an inclusive idea of citizenship in which all members of society should contribute to the nation. These ideas, at least in part, stretched to approaches to the treatment of those who had been convicted of crimes and imprisoned. This focus on the nation, which was less than a decade old, was also found in the desire to use ‘modern’ methods of rehabilitation as opposed to colonial forms. Interestingly, these new forms were in part learnt from prison officials in Britain, Guyana’s former coloniser. And while these methods offered a shift away from what had come before, they did not provide a comprehensive critique or alternatives to the use of prison for the punishment and reform of those convicted of crimes.

And yet, the focus on modern forms of rehabilitation did require a new way of thinking among prison officers. In the report, ‘a purely punitive traditional philosophy’ is set in contrast to ‘the modern concept with its emphasis on the rehabilitation of the inmates.’ The emphasis on incorporating ‘modern techniques of rehabilitation’ was thus said to necessitate the recruitment of ‘suitably qualified and interested persons.’  This call for improvement can thus be seen as being part of a process that had already begun. For example, some changes were said to have already been made with regards to the ‘promotion to the rank of Principal Officer and above.’

How was rehabilitation conceived in the 1970s? It involved ensuring the physical and mental health of prisoners, instilling a firm work ethic, providing religious support, giving individuals the chance to gain vocational and academic training, and providing opportunities to play games and participate in sports and the arts. These programmes were seen as being important for keeping prisoners busy while in prison as well as teaching them new skills and habits to prepare them for life after prison. In this we can see both change and continuity within the system of rehabilitation that had come before. Critically, the historic focus on labour continued as the majority of most prisoners’ days were spent working.

Vocational training was ideally meant to form a part of this labour. The report explains that attempts were made to align work assignments with prisoners’ ‘interest, abilities, training needs and trustworthiness.’ However, a lack of training facilities meant that this alignment was not possible with ‘training in the various trades [being] incidental rather than deliberate.’  Also noted was an emphasis on ‘production at the expense of positive training.’ So both an absence of training and a focus on production meant that many prisoners did not receive skills training that would assist them after they left prison.

As evidence of this focus on labour, the report explained that at New Amsterdam and Mazaruni prisons most inmates were employed in agriculture, even though the majority were from urban areas and not interested in agriculture because they would not be returning to a place where they could use these skills when their sentences were done. It was suggested that the emphasis of the agricultural programme needed to change in order to ‘bring about [a] change of attitude and emphasis[e] self-sufficiency.’

Another issue that obstructed rehabilitation aims was overcrowding. The numbers of people incarcerated at Georgetown Prison was described as ‘alarming’. The report explained that the prison, which was meant to accommodate 278 people, was ‘housing almost twice the number that it should normally hold.’ Such conditions were linked to ‘social and health problems.’ New Amsterdam was noted as having ‘acute’ overcrowding and Mazaruni, though described as being ‘far from ideal,’ was said to be better than the other two sites as it held 418 men who each had their own cell. The reports explains that the increase in the prison population hadn’t been met with ‘additional physical accommodation.’ The report offered no consideration of the benefit of reducing the number of prisoners who came to jail in the first place.

Despite these challenges, there were attempts to carry out some programmes even when this fell short the ideal. For instance, education aims included teaching reading to illiterate prisoners as well as providing resources to explore the arts and general interests. Yet, in 1974, there hadn’t been a trained teacher ‘for some time’ with the role of teaching those who were illiterate or who had low literacy levels being the responsibility of ‘a non-specialist member of the prison staff.’

Other education aims had more success. Basic arithmetic was taught, while those who were already literate were facilitated in their studies which included assistance in receiving books and taking exams. Prisoners were given wide scope of what they pursued with education not being narrowly fixed to the process of formal education. The report noted that ‘a prisoner is permitted to pursue any area which is educational in the broadest sense in order to stimulate healthy interests and enlarge his mental outlook.’   As well as individual pursuits, prisoners were able to participate in group events that happened after work such as ‘concerts, debates and plays.’

This report shows GPS’ desire to bring about change by instituting ‘modern’ methods of rehabilitation for prisoners in the 1970s. The attempts were made to incorporate new methods of rehabilitation were hindered by a number of factors including: the maximum security nature of prisons, the focus on labour as production, overcrowding, an inadequate number of trained officers and a lack of funding. This period shows that while an attempt was being made to shift away from colonial forms of imprisonment, the legacies of this system remained in the prison infrastructure and punitive approach to prisons and prisoners that many still had. 

Although there are several parallels between now and the 1970s there are of course differences as well. All three of these maximum security prisons are still in use, though they have been joined by two other sites at Timehri and Lusignan. Despite this expansion of facilities, overcrowding remains a significant problem. Both the structure of most prison sites and the numbers of those in prison make it difficult to find adequate and suitable space for rehabilitation programmes. Insufficient funding for rehabilitation programmes is also an issue that is yet to be fully addressed.

The 1974 report notes how some saw the protection of society and rehabilitation as being at odds. Yet both the report and Samuels explain that rehabilitation is necessary for the security of society. Most prisoners have a fixed sentence after which they leave prison. Therefore, the question of security depends in part on recognising these men and women as members of society. The stigma faced by ex-prisoners impacts rates of reoffending by keeping many of them on the margins of society. This adds to insecurity in society by creating more rather than less chances of recidivism.

The author would like to thank Mellissa Ifill for her feedback on this blog.

Kristy Warren 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.

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

Estherine Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare Anderson and Kellie Moss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.