Contemporary Reflections

By Di Levine

The MNS Guyana team has recently undertaken some analysis particularly focused on ‘juvenile’ experiences of prisons in Guyana between 1834 to the present (Warren et al. 2021). This blog post takes a moment to reflect on what our analysis might mean for how we work with children and young people right now.


Of course, none of the extensive work done with, for, and to, children and young people in contemporary times happens in a vacuum; rather it is rooted in the socio-cultural, political, and geographical frameworks and practices of the past. Here, I take a brief look at three key themes emerging from the team’s analysis through the lens of contemporary understandings of childhood and adolescence. I close with an invitation to build new conceptual frameworks for child and youth justice.


Theme 1: Representations and (re)presentations of childhood and youth
The ways in which childhood and adolescence are viewed and understood in any society has direct consequential relationships to the ways in which they are treated, not least in the justice system. Until relatively recently, children’s needs, presences and voices in both colonial and postcolonial justice contexts have been significantly under-represented (Ame, 2018) or dominated by the question of what is considered ‘juvenile’ (Abrams et al., 2018).


As the team discuss in their article (Warren et al. 2021), this lack of representation has also been present in their analysis of the youth incarceration context in Guyana. Pre-‘66 concerns surrounded ‘lawlessness’ amongst boys, and ‘immorality’ amongst girls, crucially and inextricably linked to harmful stereotypes regarding family formation (e.g. illegitimacy) and guidance, particularly towards the Afro-Creole population. Post-’66 they have found a broader consideration of ‘youth’ and ‘delinquency’ placed in the context of wider systemic change. Both of these trends reflect wider colonial and postcolonial representations of childhood and youth (Moruzi et al., 2019), and offer little surprise. What is surprising – and speaks to the problematic, deep embedding of colonial perceptions and practices on those colonised – is how little the processes of independence triggered debate in the justice system around opportunities to (re)present childhood and adolescence in ways that were rooted in local socio-cultural understandings of these life stages (e.g. Creole, Indigenous, African or Indian, or complex combinations of these).


I propose then, that the key learning from this theme for contemporary scholars of childhood and adolescence is the need to surface the myriad conceptualisations of these phases of the lifecourse in Guyana, in the same way that we would approach the intersectional challenges of any sub-group in a population, if we are to progress youth incarceration and justice systems that are both sustainable and effective into the future. We need to move from representations of childhood and adolescence, to (re)presentations of these life stages.


Theme 2: Deficit models and compound impact
The ‘deficit model’ linking aggression in childhood (and associated family risk factors) with later delinquency has dominated a significant proportion of the empirical literature and as the team show in their article (Warren et al., 2021) certainly speaks to the perceptions of both colonial and postcolonial administrators about child, parent and family relationships in Guyana. Recent research, however, suggests that both the directionality and nature of this model is incomplete, and that the deficit model may not be universally applicable (Renouf et al., 2010). Rather, there are multiple pathways through which aggressive behaviour may evolve (Hawley, 2014; Jambon et al., 2019).


There is a further challenge offered by the use of a deficit model in the Guyanese context: close to 90% of the evidence about childhood and adolescence is built on research in ‘high income’ (Minority World) countries (Blum & Boyden, 2018). The relevance of deficit models of delinquency to the Guyanese context is therefore highly questionable, compounded by the highly problematic stereotypes we have seen represented in archives and records, and demonstrated in Queenela Cameron’s recent study on the New Opportunity Corp (NOC) facility in Onderneeming (Cameron, 2019).


Contemporary evidence suggests that there are some aspects of youth development specifically that are universal. For example, the powerful neurological drive during adolescence leading to heightened effects of peer influences on perception of risk, reasoning surrounding risk, and risk-taking, and hypersensitivity to social exclusion (Foulkes & Blakemore, 2018). The team therefore saw recurring discussion of the problems of ‘gang’ cultures in their analysis, and the administrative urge to channel these neurobiological drivers into national service or corps in post-independence Guyana.
However, while there are characteristics of childhood and adolescence that are observed across cultures and histories (e.g. Blakemore, 2019), system-level interactions (e.g. between child/youth and health, education or indeed justice) can often be context-specific. Arguably the concatenation of these two circumstances the team has witnessed in archives and records, has contributed to the lack of sustained change in the youth incarceration system both in Guyana and elsewhere over long periods of time.


Theme 3: Work, educational reform and rehabilitation
The perceived close relationship between ‘work’ and ‘rehabilitation’ is a recurrent theme in our analysis since the colonial period. While much has been written on the definition and nature of child ‘work’ and ‘labour’ (e.g. Van Daalen & Mabillard, 2019; Rahikainen, 2017; Adonteng-Kissi, 2018), because child and youth voices are so absent from the evidence available to us in Guyana within the prison system, it is difficult build a picture of what aspects of this work could be considered rehabilitative, or even restorative, in the longer term. We cannot judge whether the highly-gendered educational opportunities afforded young Guyanese were sufficient to enable them to build a life for themselves beyond institutions, were barriers or facilitators of what limited social mobility might be available to them during these periods, or whether this work impacted on recidivism. The study by Cameron (Cameron, 2019) represents an initial step towards building a contemporary picture that centres the lived experience of young, incarcerated people now, which will provide new foundations for future scholarship.


Finally, we have reached the point where we understand that children and youth people are progressing through crucial periods of human development. This understanding enables us to reflect on what it means to ‘become’ an adult, and therefore what is means to be human. Significant physiological and psychosocial change (e.g. Sawyer et al., 2018), associated changes in attitudinal and behavioural appetites, influences from socio-cultural constructs, all point to complex multisystems of anthropometric, environmental and psychosocial change in which a young person navigating the justice system operates. The team’s analysis invites scholars to begin to conceptualise these multiple, interconnected systems (Theron & Ungar, 2020), some universal, some highly contextualised, all rooted on the past, in order to build more transformative pathways (Case & Hampson, 2019) in youth incarceration and justice system for Guyana’s future.

Dr Diane Levine is Deputy Director of the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies.


(Warren et al. 2021) Warren, K., Moss, K., Kerrigan, D., Ayres, T., Anderson, A., Cameron, Q., Confronting Silences Haunting Guyana’s Juvenile Justice System, Caribbean Journal of Criminology, Vol 3:1 (2021), ISSN: 0799-3897, pp. 10-39.

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.

Resisting Carceral Confinement in Guyana: Legacies of a Colonial State

Kellie Moss & Kristy Warren

In July of 2017, a fire destroyed the majority of the buildings that stood in the compound of the Georgetown Prison in Guyana’s capital. Four prisoners escaped and one warden was killed. Over 1000 people were imprisoned at the time in a space meant to hold less than 600 people. Just over a year earlier, in March 2016, 17 prisoners died and eight were injured after a fire spread in the Capital A Block of the prison. The setting of this fire arose out of prisoner’s frustration with structural deficiencies within the prison which included overcrowding, poor sanitation, and an infestation of pests. Also of relevance was that the overcrowding was caused in large part by the length of time individuals were being held on remand before trial. However, these events did not occur in a vacuum. The issues of overcrowding and the numbers of prisoners being held on remand for extended periods of time have been linked to varying forms of prisoner resistance since British rule.

Historically, prisons in British Guiana were used by colonial administrators to control and confine the labouring population, namely the formerly enslaved and indentured immigrants, within the plantation society. As a result, those of African and Asian descent were disproportionately policed and punished to deter others from engaging in ‘criminal’ activities. Most notably this occurred for breaches of contract and misdemeanours under the immigration ordinance. Whilst some prisoners adapted to the substandard living conditions and overtly punitive environment of the prison system, many sought to test these institutional practices. Critically, therefore, prisons quickly became sites of resistance and challenge for the labouring population as they attempted to alter their legal, social, and political situations.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, government inquiries and the reports of colonial authorities have urged change in the provision of the colony’s prison system, citing concerns disturbingly similar to those identified by the Commissions of Enquiry into the 2016 and 2017 fires. This included, among others, poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. As in recent years inquiries into these concerns were often a direct response to violent, every day, or official forms of prisoner’s resistance.


Due to the limited number of warders the prison system was often reliant on the compliance of prisoners to adhere to rules and regulations rather than force. As a result, when the prisoners felt powerless, they would often resort to uprisings as a way to challenge the system. Habitual offenders frequently took advantage of the lack of trained warders required to maintain discipline with the creation of gangs that threatened to overwhelm the balance of control. These groups included a range of differing classes, such as first offenders, juveniles, and those awaiting trial. Whilst attempts were made in the 1930s to alter certain aspects of the prison system, such as the separation of different classes of prisoners, these efforts were ultimately hampered due to budget constraints, and the need to manage and discipline the prison population. A lack of space, and facilities within Guyana’s prison system mean that those on remand continue to be held in close association with those imprisoned for committing violent crimes.


Rum, cannabis, and opium provided an escape from the hardships of labouring on plantations throughout much of the nineteenth century. And, having become firmly established within the culture of the labouring class the increased legislation introduced around the turn of the twentieth century unsurprisingly led to a significant rise in this form of resistance both inside and outside the prison walls. For many prisoners, substance use provides an escape from the anxieties of being imprisoned. Thus, unlike uprisings that involve acts of violence, most acts of resistance have involved everyday negotiations that have taken place between the prison population and the staff. This has included the consumption and trade of illicit substances, such as alcohol and drugs, the latter of which has mostly been trafficked by the prison staff for financial gain. Recently, much has been done to improve fencing, with the introduction of night-time surveillance, to help stem attempts by friends and family to throw contraband over the walls.


Hence, it can be seen that the use of alcohol and drugs within the prison is a trend that has continued into the twenty first century. Whilst the introduction of technology has led to a wider range of contraband in recent years (cell phones and sim cards), alcohol, and drugs continue to play an important role in helping to relieve the strictures of incarceration. In particular, cannabis remains a key drug within the prisons in connection to both escapism and resistance. Additionally, images and videos of participation in other illegal or banned activities, such as human ‘dog fights’, bring attention to the conditions in the prison system, both physical (the overcrowding) and mental (frustration and boredom).


As Guyana’s prison system continues to attract media attention and the concern of prison reform and human rights organisations (United Nations), history can be drawn on to highlight continuities in terms of the challenges of managing large numbers of prisoners with limited means. Despite some temporary successes for the prison population during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, resistance often led to additional or continued oppression. Yet, such acts of resistance continue. Since independence, a lack of resources and poor infrastructure has meant that the several commissions of enquiry have not resulted in systemic change. Further uprisings occurred in the summer of 2020 in response to continued deplorable conditions and worries that COVID-19 was spreading in the prison. It also provides a final sobering conclusion that little has changed in terms of the high rate of imprisonment in Guyana and the detrimental effects the system has had since the beginning of British rule in 1814.

The authors would like to thank Mellissa Ifill for her comments/feedback on an earlier draft of this blog.

Evaluation in a post-colonial context

By Diane Levine

In their 2020 chapter “The South against the destroying machine”, Lara Hofner takes an interdisciplinary approach to reflecting on the social realities of the Minority World, the ways in which they are hegemonic and violent, and the contrasting social realities of the Majority World,  considered ‘oppressed’ (see Hofner in Baumann & Bultmann, 2020). In this blog post I reflect on the challenges of evaluating the MNS Disorders in Guyana’s Jails project as we saw them at the outset, then share some of the key messages emerging from the mid-point evaluation, and consider some of the challenges we will face in the remainder of the project in ensuring evaluation does not become part of the “destroying machine”. [Note: I do not sit directly within the research team, which I hope has given me some small sense of distance and objectivity in delivering evaluative activity.]

What was

At the project launch stage the team’s planned evaluation and impact activities were founded on some shared key principles:

  1. We collaborate and align our efforts for the benefit of the project as a whole wherever possible,
  2. We ensure equity of access to data, including by considering gender, socio-economic and socio-cultural dimensions to our findings.
  3. Our research emerges from meaningful understandings of the complex environments in which we operate.
  4. We promote decolonising methods and perspectives.
  5. We learn continuously by analysing and reflecting on the specific and changing circumstances in which we operate.
  6. We harmonize with our colleagues outside the academy, committing to co-ordinating our efforts with others in the same space on their advice. 

The challenge ahead was not underestimated by team members. Impact and evaluation have already been problematized widely in the academy (e.g. Aguinis et al, 2014). With particular reference to this project were conceptualisations of impact that rely wholly on ideas of rationality and control that provide an unfortunately fantastical security in a context that does not in reality allow for non-linear ‘contradiction, complexity, or paradox’ (e.g. Shahjahan & Wagner, 2018, p.g.3). We all saw that this formulation made an incontrovertible link between the rational and the conqueror, and brought us dangerously into colonial practice: in this framing everything must be manageable, observable, knowable, and measurable, as the team sought to identify causal linkages between intersectional complexities and ‘impactful’ intervention.

As was expected across the funding landscape at the time (2018/19), the team intended to produce an evolutionary logical framework, and emergent classical Theory of Change goals that would: i) model pathways to impact, explaining the potential connection between activity, output, outcome, and impact, ii) provide rationales on how implemented activities and inputs are likely to lead to our desired outcomes, and iii) make assumptions and constraints explicit. The original logframe looked something like this:

Attempts to conceptualise impact in the context of a decolonial imperative have aimed to demonstrate multi-stratified perspectives of reality (e.g. Izutsu, 2008), and alternative ways of knowing that we cannot normally see through the common impact lenses of, say, policy citation (see Śūnyatā, as explicated in Shahjahan & Wagner, 2018). Change that might arise from our research activities as viewed through Śūnyatā’s lens is not change in itself. Rather, change depend for existence on everything else.

We realised that we would need to learn the lessons being taught to us by the limits and failures of tools such as logical frameworks and Theories of Change, whilst acknowledging our commitments to our funders, colleagues’ careers, institutional progression, and our partners. Following their first fieldtrip (March 2019) the team began to ask themselves some difficult questions:

  • Can we understand and evaluate in a pluriversal way that surfaces the interconnectedness between us all in the Guyanese context?
  • Can we accept the discomfort that our work may not ‘make a difference’ in the ways we conceptualise ‘difference-making’?

Alongside finding ways of addressing these questions, the team realised that parallel systems might need to be run for capturing the pragmatic requirements of funders and institutions. They wanted to formulate these new ways of evaluating and knowing without sacrificing their integrity. This seemed to me an excellent position from which to begin my observation (and learning) journey.

What is now

One of the parallel systems to which we had committed was a mid-point evaluation. Our original conceptualisation was of something that would be delivered in Guyana, with Guyanese stakeholders. Sadly, in March 2020 we had to rapidly re-formulate our approach with the onset of Covid-19. Fieldwork, workshops, focus groups and consultation would no longer be possible in the way we had envisaged. Not only that, but uncertainty within the Guyanese socio-political context, and associated significant workloads for everyone, meant that we could not in fairness ask people to give up their time for long virtual workshops.

In the interests of pragmatism we opted for a light touch mid-point evaluation comprising a content analysis of all meeting minutes to summer 2020, 1:1 interviews of all team members willing to speak, and a summary that would then be reflected to our Advisory Board for comment, critique, and critical friendship. Six key themes emerged.

What will be?

So what about next steps? Well, there are some practical things we need to do. For example, for large scale projects, we need to begin to consider costing/building in professional support for those gathering data in the field (including in archives), or possible training modules available to all teams in managing emotional responses to this kind of high-stakes work.

But the significant, intersectional task ahead for evaluation will be to continue to recognise that “evaluation is unavoidably and simultaneously in dialog with the prevailing contexts of colonization and decolonization vis-à-vis the location and moment in which it occurs” (Marama Cavino, 2013). We need to build a culturally-meaningful, Caribbean-aligned, model of evaluation that meets Guyanese needs, as well as our original commitments. Watch this space!

Dr Diane Levine is the Deputy Director and Manager of the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Leicester.

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.

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.

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.

History of Substance Use and Control in Guyana

Kellie Moss

The control of psychoactive substances in Guyana was established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through varied national and international drug control initiatives related to opium, cannabis, and the supervision of pharmaceutical products. As in other colonies, early measures were implemented as a means of social control for the economically disadvantaged. Missionaries were amongst the first to draw attention to the use of psychotropic substances by Indigenous peoples (known as Amerindians) in association with spiritual and recreational experiences. The Accaway’s, who inhabited Upper Demerara, Mazaruni, and the Putaro districts, produced a fermented beverage known as piwari for feasts (Bernau, 1847). Traditionally prepared for male consumption, missionaries noted that women would chew cassava bread into a pulp adding water until fermented. The men would then drink until they were in a state of ‘beastly intoxication’, or the trough (generally a canoe used for the purpose of fermentation) was empty (Duff, 1866). In addition to spiritual and recreational purposes, Amerindians also utilised fermented beverages for medicinal purposes, such as reducing fever (quassia bark), stomach ache (mauby bark, also known as a ‘decoction of woods’), and enriching the blood (sorrel plant). To motivate and organise the Indigenous population, colonial agents encouraged, and fostered their dependency on psychotropic substances. This included distilled spirits, such as rum or brandy (Bernau, 1847). This rapid introduction to distilled spirits, in addition to European influence on habits of consumption, resulted in social dependencies that tied the Amerindian labour force to the colonial system. Although informal, the fostering of chemical dependencies played a pivotal role in the political and economic shaping of the colony, as the colonial authorities increasingly used this technique as a means to control those on the fringes of society.  

Piwarry Feast of the Accaway Tribe: Wellcome Library , EPB/B/13446, Bernau, J. H. (John Henry), Missionary Labours in British Guiana (John Farquhar Shaw, London, 1847).

Legislation to criminalise the use of psychoactive substances was first introduced in Guyana in 1838, following the termination of the apprenticeship system, through which the formerly enslaved were tied to their previous owners for a four-year period. To avoid a decline in plantation labour the colonial government introduced numerous measures to restrict African movement, including in 1839 an ordinance for the ‘relief of the destitute poor’ (TNA, CO 113/1).This act granted the Court of Policy (legislative council) the power to ‘set to work’ those unable to support themselves (TNA, CO 113/1). In accordance with the act, anyone caught absconding, drunk, introducing, or attempting to introduce spiritous or fermented liquors into the workhouses could be sentenced to hard labour in prison for one month (TNA, CO 113/1). Despite the introduction of such measures the formerly enslaved continued to leave sugar estates in favour of villages and urban centres. To offset this emerging labour vacuum plantation owners imported indentured contract labourers from Africa, Asia, and Europe (TNA, CO 113/1).

As a result of its introduction to Guyana by indentured immigrants from South Asia (known as East Indians), the cultivation of Indian hemp, more commonly known as cannabis, quickly became a thriving cottage industry. Widely believed to have spiritual and medicinal connotations, the cultivation and use of the plant had long been a part of Hindu tradition (Russo, 2005). Accepted by plantation owners in the Caribbean, the use of cannabis was, to a certain extent, even promoted as a means of enhancing labourers’ productivity (Jankowiak & Bradburd, 2003). As one of the oldest-known plants in Asia cannabis was prepared and used in various forms. Bhang, the dried leaves of the plant, being the cheapest and most widespread, was reported by British medical officers to produce a ‘quiet, pleasant delirium’. The sticky yellow resin of the plant known as charas (hashish), on the other hand, was believed to cause ‘excitement attended with violence’. The drug was also used in the form of a sweetmeat called majun, and smoked as ganja, which was made from the plants dried flower tops. The latter preparation was the one generally chosen among indentured labourers in the colony owing to its low cost (British Medical Journal, 1893).

De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes, L. Fuchs, 1842: Wellcome Collection.

As the nineteenth century progressed official opposition to cannabis first arose in recognition of the drug’s alleged debilitating effects. They were concerned that indentured labourers were spending more time and effort growing cannabis than attending to their work on the estates. Furthermore, colonial authorities also expressed unease regarding the excessive use of cannabis, which some felt had the tendency to increase rather than reduce confrontation, particularly in hostile situations. Concerns regarding the effects of the drug continued to grow as the use of cannabis, which was believed to have been initially confined to Hindu men, spread amongst the different ethnic groups on the estates (British Medical Journal, 1893). Owing to the increased number of incidents being attributed to substance abuse, an ordinance to regulate the sale of opium and bhang was introduced to the colony in 1861 (TNA, CO 113/4). The primary focus of the act was to restrict the access of Indian and Chinese immigrants to the drug (TNA, CO 113/4). The evidence for this legislation, however, was based on little more than the casual observations of plantation owners. Critics used evidence of substance abuse to feed into larger classifications and ideas about race and its connection to moral character (TNA, CO 113/8). Debates regarding the use of psychotropic substances and their control are therefore rooted historically in much wider concerns related to colonial power structures, and the rights and privileges of the labouring population.

With recurrent concerns regarding the use of opium and cannabis in Guyana, namely the link between insanity and substance abuse, rum was rapidly introduced by plantation owners as an alternative (British Medical Journal, 1893). Unlike cannabis, and its indirect benefits as a labour enhancer, the planters directly profited from the production and distribution of rum (TNA, CO 113/8). Interested in creating a captive consumer class, official tolerance in the Caribbean regarding the use of rum was also predominantly favoured by colonial authorities. Simultaneously, the sanctioned access to alcohol for labourers was a powerful incentive for immigrants to engage in plantation work. Unsurprisingly, the consumption of alcohol dramatically increased during this period as indentured immigrants became increasingly reliant on its effects to obscure the misery of plantation life. The consolidation of laws relating to indentured immigrants in 1873, namely those in connection to the penalties for drunk and disorderly conduct, highlight the extent of its escalation as penalties for drunk and disorderly conduct were further outlined (TNA, CO 113/5).By positing a need for such measures, the plantation owners served to justify their exploitative and oppressive actions towards the labourers.

Internationally the drive to control psychoactive substances began in 1912 at the International Opium Convention at the Hague (TNA, CO 113/13). Despite the lack of agreement amongst the delegates a discussion on cannabis had lasting repercussions for Guyana as legislation was introduced to further regulate the importation and sale of Indian Hemp in 1913 (TNA, CO 113/13). Despite the lack of scientific or medical data to support these international debates cannabis was designated from this point as a dangerous drug. The cultivation and importation of cannabis was officially criminalised in Guyana following the introduction of the 1938 Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. Later amendments followed Guyana’s independence with the United Nations Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988, which required states to adopt measures to establish as a criminal offence any activity related to narcotic drugs (CARICOM Report, 2018). This demand continues to place pressure on Guyana’s overstretched prison system (see Ayres, 2020).

Throughout the history of Guyana, the use of psychotropic substances has been determined therefore, by numerous factors, such as cultural expectations and economic motivations. Drugs became a reward to encourage productivity, but also led to debts and addictions, all of which ensured the economically disadvantaged remained bound to their employers. The stimulating properties of these substances and their ability to establish and solidify bonds, whether economic, cultural or religious, has ensured their enduring and widespread demand from pre-colonisation to the present day.

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

Substance Use in Guyana: The Cannabis Conundrum

Traditionally Guyana’s approach to drugs has been punitive, with imprisonment being used as a tool to eradicate drug use and supply, which includes cannabis. Cannabis users in Guyana still face a mandatory prison sentence of three years for the possession of one joint (a cannabis cigarette). However, this policy has failed and like many other countries, Guyana is proposing to remove custodial sentences for small amounts of cannabis (30 grams or less). Last year the government made the first steps towards changing the law by drafting amendments to the Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill 2015. Although nothing has changed yet, and the possession of cannabis remains illegal, the proposed changes show that Guyana is moving with international opinion and implementing similar practices as those adopted in other countries, including those in the Caribbean. The implementation of a prison sentence for personal use of cannabis has been described as excessive and disproportionate and has been shown to have a negative impact on the life chances, travel and future careers of those prosecuted and imprisoned under these laws. Therefore, this blog focuses on some of the issues at stake in the shift in Guyana towards a less punitive and more rehabilitative treatment orientated approach to substance use, particularly in relation to cannabis.

Substance use in Guyana has been identified as a problem in the National Mental Health Action Plan (NMHAP) and the National Drug Strategy Master Plan 2016-2020 (NDSMP). Both include the use of legal substances like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications alongside illegal substances like cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. It is acknowledged that in Guyana, there is a need to better understand the use of substances and address the number of shortfalls in responding to substance use. These include inadequate service provision, inter-sectorial and multi-agency collaboration; inadequate treatment and rehabilitative facilities; and insufficiently trained personnel. As with most other countries the substances most widely used in Guyana are alcohol and cannabis. These are the most popular substances among the general population but also among those with more problematic patterns of substance use/dependence like prisoners and/or those accessing drug treatment. Cannabis use has been linked with psychosis and mental ill-health in Guyana, while evidence has shown that alcohol plays a prominent role in suicide, which has also been identified as a public health issue in Guyana (see Halliwell, 2019). Alongside cannabis and alcohol, cocaine and its derivatives, particularly crack, are also prevalent among those with more problematic patterns of substance use/dependence. However, it is cannabis, rather than other narcotic substances that dominates the Guyanese statistics and has been subject to much scrutiny over the last decade.

Like many other countries across the globe the legal status of and laws on cannabis have been subject to much criticism, protest and debate in Guyana; a country where a minimum mandatory sentence of three years imprisonment is still imposed for possession of a small quantity of the drug. In fact, the laws prohibiting drugs in Guyana and other Caribbean countries, particularly pertaining to cannabis, have been described as draconian, ‘ineffective, incongruous, obsolete and deeply unjust’ (CARICOM, 2018). This is largely due to the disproportionate sentences imposed in Guyana for the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use (5 grams) and the low thresholds utilised for the presumption of drug trafficking (15 grams) in a country where cannabis is grown and used by approximately 5% of the population every year.

Cannabis is widely used across the Commonwealth Caribbean and throughout history has been used culturally, religiously and medicinally around the globe. Despite many of these cultural and religious practices originating in Asia, the use of cannabis also has a long history among Caribbean peoples and countries, including in Guyana (formerly British Guiana). The production, use and prohibition of cannabis in British Guiana was intertwined with the history of colonialism, enslavement and immigration. In fact, cannabis was introduced to Guyana post-emancipation by East Indian indentured labourers (CARICOM, 2018). Much of the early legislation passed to control cannabis in British Guiana – the 1861 Ordinance to Regulate the Sale of Opium and Bhang (an edible form of cannabis that is also an integral part of Hindu rituals and festivals) and the 1913 Indian Hemp Ordinance of British Guiana – can be attributed to the cultural practices of Indian indentured labourers, and the implementation of international treaties that deemed cannabis a dangerous drug, despite persuasive evidence suggesting the contrary. The role of cannabis in religious practices among Caribbean peoples, particularly among Rastafarians, is also well documented. It is also the Rastafarian community who have been fighting for cannabis law reform in Guyana. They regard cannabis as a holy herb, a gift from God that has medicinal and spiritual benefits and believe they should be exempt from the laws prohibiting it. Cannabis laws have been shown to disproportionately affect poor, minority communities that are marginalised, particularly when it comes to the offence of drug possession and trafficking.

There are high levels of incarceration for drug offences in Guyana. In 2017, the majority of individuals charged and convicted with drug possession by Guyanese authorities were for cannabis (93% and 90% respectively), with just under a fifth (18%) of these people being under the age of 18 years old. The majority of those charged (88%) and convicted (81%) of drug trafficking was also for cannabis. In fact, drug offences (both possession and supply) are the second most prevalent crime for which prisoners are arrested for in Guyana, after intentional homicide or murder. This is particularly true for females; despite comprising less than 5% of the prison population, the majority of women in Guyana are incarcerated for drug offences (54%), particularly for drug trafficking (GUYDIN, 2017; Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017). In fact, just under a quarter (21.3%) of all prisoners are in prison for drug possession or trafficking, and drug offenders have the third highest recidivism rate (21.6%). Thus, drug offences, which mostly relate to cannabis, are contributing to an already overwhelmed, overstretched and under resourced prison system (USDS, 2019). The issue of non-custodial sentences for the possession of cannabis and its subsequent overcrowding were factors that led to the 2017 fire started by prisoners in Georgetown Prison, which killed 17 prisoners (see Ifill, 2019).

Not only are a significant proportion of the prison population incarcerated for drug offences, prisoners in Guyana tend to have higher rate of substance use than the general population. Just over a fifth (22.7%) of prisoners in Guyana admitted to using alcohol and/or drugs in the last month while in prison, with the majority using cannabis (84%) and alcohol (33%) (Sarsfield and Bergman, 2017); substance use was found to be highest among those held in Lusignan (44%) and Timehri (42%) prisons. Despite being rife in prison, drugs have a negative impact on both staff and prisoners. The use and supply of drugs in prison, and the debts arising from the drug trade contribute to high levels of violence, corruption, intimidation, self-harm and mental ill-health. While drugs are brought in by prisoners and their families, prison officers are also reported to supply drugs and other contraband to prisoners (see Ifill 2019). In fact, last year, Guyana’s Prison Service (GPS) confiscated 12.81 kilograms of cannabis indicating the problem of maintaining the levels of security necessary to stop drugs entering Guyana’s prisons. There has also been a move by GPS towards a more rehabilitative approach that proposes more drug treatment for prisoners. However, there are a number of limitations delaying the implementation of drug treatment provision across Guyana’s prisons (e.g., the infrastructure, limited resources and inadequately trained personnel). Currently, the Drug Demand Reduction Unit of the Ministry of Public Health has drug and alcohol counselling programmes in the Timehri, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam, Female prison. There have also been steps taken to look at alternatives to incarceration for drug dependent, nonviolent offenders in Guyana in line with United Nations Special Session on Drugs Outcome Document and the US-sponsored CND resolution (2016). As a consequence, Guyana is piloting a Drug Treatment Court in Georgetown, which aims to divert drug users out of the criminal justice system and into treatment, which has been outlined in the new drug strategy for Guyana.

In fact, the new Guyanese National Drug Strategy Master Plan (NDSMP) 2016-2020 was ‘triggered by the need to bring it in line with most recent national and international dynamics of the drug problem and built on Guyana’s previous drug strategies (NDSMP 2005-2009 and NDSMP 2014-2018). The plan outlines national drug policy, identifies key priorities, assigns responsibilities and delineates the operational plans of each government department involved in implementing the NDSMP, which will be overseen by National Anti-Narcotics Agency (NANA) that was established in 2017.

The new strategy emphasises a holistic Public Health approach and the Guyanese government are putting measures in place to improve the provision of drug treatment at all levels of the healthcare system. Substance use in Guyana is largely dealt with by utilising a public-private, holistic multi-agency approach to drug prevention and treatment, although fostering a rehabilitative culture in prison is also a part of the drug strategy. Currently the Georgetown Public Hospital, Psychiatric Unit provides outpatient treatment services, the Ministry of Education delivers drug education in schools, while two NGOs (Phoenix Recovery Project and the Salvation Army Men’s Centre) provide inpatient treatment for substance use, which utilise the 12-step model; in fact, in the new drug strategy the Phoenix Recovery Project and the Salvation Army will get a subvention to aid in carrying out their services and increase capacity. Substance users are not only detained in Guyana’s prisons but also in the National Psychiatric Hospital, which is used to treat those suffering from substance induced psychosis and other substance related mental health issues. Last year, two-thirds of the 180 in-patients at the National Psychiatric Hospital were suffering from substance induced psychosis, with nearly three-quarters of these identifying as cannabis users. This has led to concerns being raised about the removal of custodial sentences for cannabis possession by some of the country’s psychologists working in this area.  

                             NANA in Guyana (Photograph: Martin Halliwell)

While the legal status of cannabis remains under debate in Guyana and the piloting of Drug Treatment Courts gets underway, the Guyanese government have made it clear they are not ready to legalise or decriminalise cannabis as recommended by the CARICOM Commission on Marijuana (CARICOM, 2018). Although some might argue the proposed initiatives do not go far enough, the removal of custodial sentences for small amounts of cannabis will mean fewer people are being sent to prison for non-violent drug related offences imposed by laws that have been described as ‘draconian’ ‘discriminatory’ and ‘outdated’. It will also help to alleviate the overcrowding currently experienced in Guyana’s prisons and the subsequent inhumane conditions that arise from said overcrowding (see Ifill, 2019). However, these amendments have been with the National Assembly for years with little progress being made either way to solve the current cannabis conundrum. Although the new drug strategy proposes ‘offering treatment, rehabilitation, social reinsertion and recovery support services to drug-dependent criminal offenders as an alternative to criminal prosecution and imprisonment’, this approach is extremely costly. To treat someone at the Phoenix Recovery Project costs $60,000 a month compared to the $27,884 – $40,416 a month it costs to keep someone in prison without access to sufficient rehabilitative services and reintegration programmes, which also has an impact on reducing recidivism and relapse. Despite the new rehabilitative focus proposed by the new policy, treatment resources for drug use remain limited and costly. Therefore, if Guyana is to successfully achieve the aims set out in the current drug strategy these initiatives will not only need adequate funding, but also infrastructure, resources, staff and political support. Although drug courts are not without their criticisms, they pose a potentially preferable alternative to a custodial sentence in Guyana’s already over stretched prison system, which has been described as ‘harsh and potentially life threatening’ (USDS, 2017). Even though the debate surrounding the legal status of cannabis in Guyana continues and there is no clear indication if the custodial sentences will be removed for possession, while we await the results on the impact from the piloting of Drug Treatment Courts, there is clearly a new era in drugs policy emerging in the nation today.

Tammy Ayres is a Lecturer in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester, UK.

The author would like to thank Tiffany Barry (Head of Guyana Drug Information Network and NANA) for her comments and input on an earlier draft of this blog.