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suspension of this vital stress-reliever and depression-combatant implies that many prisoners were likely to become withdrawn, easily agitated, disruptive, fight amongst themselves, experience appetite loss, and harbour escape and/or suicidal thoughts.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

Research during Covid: The three Rs (Reflexivity, Resilience and Rum)

By Members of the Research Team

Research never goes to plan. As academics, we all know this. It is also a fact we constantly share with our students as an expected part of academic research. Whether it is a failure to gain access, or find enough people willing to participate, we all face research challenges. Like most things however, Covid has added a new set of challenges to academic research (as well as opening up new opportunities), which our research team recently faced on a trip to collect data in Guyana. This reminded us all about the importance of the three Rs – Reflexivity, Resilience and Rum (rum is used to emphasise the importance of relaxation and researcher self-care as well as the importance of looking after each other when out in the field, something that is to commonly forgotten about in research). Subsequently, this blog outlines how Covid recently impacted upon our data collection plans and how we, the team of three (the three musketeers), responded to the challenges they faced, illustrating the importance not only of the team – its members, relationship, reflexivity, and resilience – but also of building the networks of support that became an invaluable source of help on this trip. Although often over-looked, networks of support – academic as well as practitioner – are invaluable as we travel the globe in person or virtually undertaking research and delivering research papers at conferences.

Covid-19: The Challenges

We have all had to face new challenges arising from the global Covid pandemic, and this includes research. The ever-changing requirements for travel alone can be a minefield especially when multiple destinations are involved. Do you need a PCR test? A lateral flow? A vaccine record? Although the team joked about the possibilities of Covid negatively affecting this research trip as we completed the usual research risk assessment form, we did not for one minute think that this would become our reality. As we navigated the various government requirements for travel to Guyana, and as transit passengers (currently there is no direct flight from London to Georgetown), we quickly became all too familiar with the challenges when these documents expire. Three days prior to travel our connecting flight was cancelled; due primarily to the knock-on effects of Covid the carrier was required to consolidate some of its existing flights. This delay in being able to fly to our final destination meant that our existing Covid PCR tests (taken in the UK before departure) became invalid while we were in transit. As a result, two hours before we were due to leave for the airport, we had to retest, and then found ourselves faced with the unenviable decision of whether to abandon the research trip as one of us tested positive. Despite the UK being only days away from dropping all restrictions the rules of quarantine in our transit destination, as in many areas of the Caribbean, remained in full force. After a frantic hour of rearranging hotel rooms, contacting our colleagues, updating the insurance provider, and ensuring the Covid patient had the basic necessities for a possible ten-day stay in isolation, the remaining two members of the team apprehensively continued on with the trip.

Reflexivity

We reflect on a daily basis in both our personal and professional lives, and the importance of being reflexive when undertaking research is well documented.  It facilitates self-awareness and allows researchers to respond to unexpected challenges and situations in appropriate and ethical ways. It also allows researchers to improve and build on instances of good practice as well as to learn from their mistakes. Thanks to Covid we had to revisit and alter our itinerary for the trip. This was mainly owing to the fact that as a team we were now lacking in the expertise required for certain elements of data collection, namely the interviewing of prisoners and a focus group with their families. The added scrutiny that this placed on our planned activities ensured that we worked together, albeit remotely, to create a workable plan. As a result, two of the most invaluable research tools on this trip quickly became Zoom and WhatsApp, as we adapted to the circumstances to ensure the trip was a success. This technology enabled us to further refine our research questions and aims as we prepared for the interviews with our colleague in isolation. Due to the circumstances, we also made the decision to employ a local researcher with experience of working with prisoners and their families. In addition to helping with the language barrier (many speak a variation of English known as Guyanese Creole) this also had the unexpected benefit of producing more in-depth data as the prisoners connected with the interviewer over their shared experiences of living in the same country. Furthermore, where possible one of our key activities – a session in which we co-created a new tool that will enable the Guyana Prison Service to gauge the experiences of prisoners and officers – was moved to an online session. This had the added benefit of enabling officers, and members of our team, from a wider geographical area to take part. This reflexivity not only ensured we were able to successfully carry out our designated activities, it also strengthened our relationships with our partners, both in Guyana and the UK, as we worked together to overcome difficulties.

Resilience 

Although not a fan of the word resilience – which seems to have become a contemporary buzz word – it best describes the reaction of the team members to the situation they found themselves in during this research trip. Instead of letting it get them down they did their best to make the best out of a bad situation (thanks to being reflective), which actually resulted not only in a very productive data collection trip, but also one that contained some genuine moments of comradery, good humour and bursts of hysterical laughter despite the adverse and at times disappointing situation that faced us. As Charles Darwin exclaimed/outlined: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change’. Sentiments that stand true for the recent predicament we, the research team, found themselves in and how we chose to respond to it.

We had always planned for Covid, in that we decided that three persons would go on this trip, so that in the event of sickness and isolation the others could complete the research activities. Despite our pact that if one of us tested positive for Covid then the team would carry on without them, like many plans in life, you never really expect them to happen so, the reality and its accompanying shock was somewhat overwhelming and definitely unexpected. In fact, the first 5 minutes after the initial news of the positive test was spent asking the medical team if they were joking, as is often the way in the Caribbean. It was however no joke. One of us had tested positive and was going to have to stay behind in transit and in quarantine in a different country on their own, while the remaining two went on to Guyana. This is when true teamwork and collegiality really come into play as everyone (bar the infected who had to stay outside) pulled together to rectify/address the situation in the 2-hour window before everyone was due to fly. A team member in the UK liaised with our travel agent. We called and discussed the situation with our partners, and later on the British High Commission in Guyana, with whom we have built excellent working relationship over the past few years.

Once the initial shock of one of us testing positive for Covid had worn off the team revisited their itinerary and data collection plans for the forthcoming week to ensure everyone was still involved where practically possible/needed. Despite the initial disappointment, and the frustration of not being able to go and collect data in Guyana, the Covid patient endeavoured to come up with an exit plan until they heard from the Ministry of Health. The idea was to rest up, clear the virus and follow the team on after 5-days. However, this was not to be. Instead, the Ministry made it quite clear that the minimum isolation period was 10-days, although the patient was given a hotline number to call. After a frustrating day with 7-hours spent just redialling but being unable to get through on the telephone number provided by the Ministry of Health, the Covid patient also explored other avenues of help/support to ascertain the situation. It was at this point that the importance of networks was emphasised: the team was in touch with the High Commission of Guyana, and it was willing to help. Once the Covid patient knew that they were quarantined for 10-days and the research team had created a new itinerary for the trip, it was easy to plan their time and make the best use of the situation both to recover but also to catch up on some of the background project reading, reading the interview transcripts and coding frames as well as numerous other tasks that often get postponed.

The team debriefed every morning and/ or evening where practicably possible not only to catch up on the day’s progress but also to relax, and jolly each other along. The daily debriefs with their colleagues in Guyana, including meetings where the Covid patient Zoomed in, also helped to ensure that they felt part of the project and part of the team. It also kept them busy and helped the time to pass quickly, with some days feeling quite busy despite not leaving the hotel room. We had a job to do, and Covid was not going to stop us. We just had to get on with it.

Rum

Undertaking research in the Caribbean is challenging. Although, Guyana is often seen by many as a desirable research location, many often fail to consider the subject matter of our project, the political/cultural sensitivities, and the fact that despite being a desirable destination, our time is often spent in old colonial prisons – some of which have been deemed to violate the United Nations Minimum Standards for the treatment of prisoners – talking to prisoners, staff, communities and families about often upsetting and traumatic experiences, which the research team then have to process and deal with. It is in this context that the importance of self-care and looking after each other comes into play. Although there are more formal channels of support offered to everyone working on the project, there are also informal support practices that have been an integral part of this research project, which is also reflected in the relationship of the team.

The research team on this project are very close, familial like even – but without much of the negativity associated with families. We all genuinely support each other. There are no egos. There is no competition. Instead, there is clear leadership, collegiality and care. Whether it is coffee and cake or catching up over a meal, regular debriefs, relaxation and humour have always been an important part of the team’s R and R, emphasising the importance of relaxation and researcher self-care as well as the importance of looking after each other when out in the field, something that is to commonly forgotten about in research. It was this which got us through what one of the researchers described as the most difficult situation in their 25-year career. With pride, we returned to the UK together, having completed all our planned activities and with our research team stronger than ever before.

Acknowledgements: The Covid patient would like to thank their two travel/research companions, as well as the team in Guyana, and everyone that looked after them, especially the High Commission in Georgetown in Guyana, and the Chief Medical Officer of the transit country, who went above and beyond in their support.