Working through the 110 interviews conducted to date (20 prisoners, 30 community members, 30 prisoner family members, 30 prison officers) by or for this research team has been a key aspect of my work with this project. These interviews were intended to draw out details of individual experience and understanding to help develop a well-rounded and carefully evidenced understanding of the Guyana Prison Service (GPS) as it operates today. This work is in support of our efforts to understand the historical roots and present-day operations and challenges of the GPS and more broadly, and specifically, issues around MNS in these systems and spaces.
Some interviews were conducted by members of the project team, but the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted this work. We were lucky to connect with Fiona (Magda) Wills, the Director of SSYDR who took over the interviews in Guyana, with great success. All interview participants gave their consent to be interviewed and audio recorded, for their contributions to be used anonymously by the project team, and generously shared their time, experiences, and impressions of the GPS. Interviewees were thanked with a small cash gift (honorarium).
Interviewing for this project involved connecting with people whose lives are intimately connected – directly and indirectly – with Guyana’s prisons. These can be difficult stories to share, as people revisit sensitive subjects and delicate moments. The experience of deep listening as an interviewer also involves an intensity of experience and emotion. To better understand the experience of interviewing family members of prisoners, people who live near prisons, and prison officers, we asked Fiona to tell us about her experience and she generously agreed to sit down with Clare Anderson and Emma Battell Lowman earlier this year.
We were keen to learn whether prisons were something people were interested in discussing. Fiona explained, “People generally, people are always very willing to talk, I find! […] they want to talk more, and a lot of it isn’t necessarily related to the interviews but they’re just happy to talk.” In some cases, it seems, these interviews offered a space for people to feel heard about their concerns and experiences with the prison system.
What stood out for Fiona across the three groups she interviewed – family members of prisoners, people who live near prisons, and prison officers – was that “they are all stakeholders” and were invested in the prison spaces being well-maintained and tidy as an important aspect of these persons’ mental health. Many interviewees identified the purpose of prisons as being for the rehabilitation of prisoners as part of a shift from a penal to a correctional approach in the GPS. As Fiona identified, “if you really want to rehabilitate, my belief is that you have to make everybody’s space liveable” and that means attending to the physical spaces inside and outside the prison to benefit the diverse communities involved in and impacted by Guyana’s prisons.
It was something more personal that Fiona told us had the biggest impact on her over the course of conducting the interviews. The thing that “jolted” her was the number of mothers she interviewed who had sons – particularly sons in their 20s – in the prison system who were impacted by the incarceration of their child, and often maintained narratives of their innocence. Fiona said this “gripped” her, because she also has a young son, and this connection made these experiences stand out.
Fiona’s team transcribed the audio recordings of the interviews with great care and expertise (good transcription is not easy or fast!), these were then sent securely to the UK-based project team, and that’s where I come in. I’m the most recent addition to the project team and have come on board to help as the project nears completion. The project team is an excellent collaboration between the University of Leicester and Leicester Prison Service in the UK, and the University of Guyana and Guyana Prison Service, which allows us to combine specific skills and expertise from several areas of study with on-the-ground experience and expertise in the GPS. In turn, this means the work we are doing stays closely tied to the needs and priorities of those most impacted by the GPS while also seeking to make contributions and changes to global research on prisons, carcerality, and MNS (mental, neurological, and substance use disorders). By working to analyse and prepare the interview transcripts for use by the research team, I help to support the collaborative work of the project team to produce practical materials for use in the GPS and research articles for public and academic audiences.
My work with the interview transcripts took place thousands of miles from Guyana, but created a sense of proximity and intimacy as I worked carefully through each one to identify themes and information connected with the project’s key questions and concerns. The immediacy of frustration of family members and prisoners at the long delays in moving cases forward in the justice system, the evident strain on family members who have to provide support to prisoners in terms of food, toiletries, and money to ensure a reasonable level of health, and the fear of violence spilling over from the prisons into the streets and homes of people who live nearby all came through powerfully in the words and stories on the page.
The emotional experience of working with these stories is an important aspect of our work – it helps us find empathetic connections with people whose lives and our own are quite different, and it helps us understand from a personal perspective the direct impacts of the prison system as it operates today in Guyana. Taken together, these interviews present a powerful picture of a system whose impacts extend far beyond the prison walls and the strong case for investment and improvement.
Dr Emma Battell Lowman 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Prison Service does not attract much public acknowledgement, attention or
scrutiny under normal circumstances. Great awareness of and discussion on the
GPS occur only when something goes drastically wrong – and much has gone
drastically wrong over the past two decades – these include prisoners escaping,
rioting, protesting, setting fires (including one in 2016 Georgetown prison
that resulted in the death of to 17 prisoners), attacking and sometimes killing
prison officers and trafficking illegal items in prison. Additionally
discussions about the conditions and nature of imprisonment usually only ensue
in the aftermath of the preceding ‘gone wrongs’ or following high profile
crimes. Despite this lack of continuous public attention, the Guyana Prison
Service (GPS) has embarked upon a process to change from a mainly punitive to a
mainly rehabilitative institution. This effort at transformation however has
been difficult since the security
institution has been confronted with and has to address numerous systemic and
historically derived deficiencies and challenges. The latter will be the
subject of this blog post.
Prison Service (GPS) was created under Section 4A of the Prison Act, Chapter
11:01, as a public authority, but the Act does not specify its essential
functions. Notwithstanding this oversight, the GPS has an important function to
perform in the criminal justice system. The main responsibility of the Guyana
Prison Service as noted in its submission to the Disciplined Forces Commission
(2004) is “to ensure the safe custody of the offenders who have violated the
law of the land and are placed in physical confinement (Prisons) in order to
protect the society”.
corrective institution, the GPS has the dual responsibility of protecting
society by creating secure incarceration arrangements while simultaneously
engaging in activities and initiatives to facilitate the rehabilitation and
reintegration of offenders into the society. This dual function is premised
upon an inherited conventional notion of justice that views prisons as public
liabilities/burdens rather than as an important tool in the societal
transformation process and than can be used to generate economic resources
while rehabilitating the offender.
and in the contemporary era, the Guyana Prison Service has been unable to
adequately fulfil this dual function of protecting the society and
rehabilitating lawbreakers as it has continually been deficient, particularly
in terms of financial resources, accommodation and qualified staff.
reports over the past decades graphically underscore the depressing conditions
in Guyana’s prisons. The United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and
Labor annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices detail the ongoing
crisis in the GPS. Confirming the dismal circumstances in Guyana’s prisons was
a 2017 Citizen Security Strengthening Programme prison survey report that was
funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. These studies reaffirmed the
findings of previous studies such as the 2001 Prison Reform Report that was
conducted by the International Consultancy Group of the British Government
Cabinet Office Centre for Management and Policy Studies; the Report of Board of
Inquiry into the Escape of Five Prisoners from Georgetown Prison on February
23, 2002; The Guyana Prison Service 2001-2011 Strategic Development Plan; the
Criminal Law Review Committee Report; The Report of the Disciplined Services
Commission submitted to the National Assembly in May 2004; The 2009 Ministry of
Home Affairs Review of the Guyana Prison Service.
concerns and problems highlighted in the aforementioned studies are:
which is inimical to rehabilitation and reintegration in society;
personnel, arrangements and equipment – i.e insufficient monitoring and warning
mechanisms in the prisons;
Inhumane conditions in
the prisons that both staff and prisoners have to endure;
Multiple violations of
prisoners’ human rights;
alternatives to incarceration offered by the criminal justice system.
& Inhumane Conditions
Guyana has six
main prisons located in all three counties of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice,
one of which caters for female prisoners. These are Georgetown [which prior to
the massive fire that razed the wooden buildings had an official capacity of
600], New Amsterdam (Male) that is designed to accommodate 275 individuals, New
Amsterdam (Female) which has an official capacity of 75, Mazaruni which has an
official capacity of 390, Lusignan which accommodates 120 and Timehri which was
designed to cater for 90. The total official capacity for all six prisons prior
to the fire was 1550. Overcrowding has always been a feature of the prison
locations and the three largest prisons, Georgetown, Mazaruni and New Amsterdam
have been the most problematic, with the problems magnified in the former. At
August 31, 2019, Guyana’s prisons housed 2099 prisoners.
housed 477 – exceeding its male capacity by 133 and under its female capacity
(current under construction) housed 354 – under its capacity by 36;
housed 147, exceeding capacity by 27;
128, over its capacity by 38;
993 prisoners are housed at Georgetown A & B locations which are still
emergency housing arrangements that vastly exceed capacity.
In the wake of
the 2016 fire that razed the wood prison in Georgetown, overcrowding has worsened.
Just under 1/3 of the prison population are currently housed in sheds in a
field adjoining Lusignan Prison and these prisoners face an extremely harsh and
inhumane existence including inadequate water and sanitation, poorly prepared meals; congested
filthy blocks; some are forced to sleep on the floor others on filthy
mattresses. Health care is inadequate and rehabilitative training or
recreational activities are minimal to none. According to the US Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in its 2018 Country Report on Human Rights
Practices for Guyana, “Prison and jail conditions, particularly in police
holding cells, were reportedly harsh and potentially life threatening due to
overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions.” Meanwhile
the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent reported in 2017
that the conditions at the Lusignan Prison were horrific and that the cells
were not suitable for human habitation. According to the report, prisoners
complained of grossly unsanitary conditions including inadequate potable water,
lengthy confinement in their cells with limited opportunities for sunlight.
convicted prisoners, a large numbers of remand prisoners awaiting trial are
forced to live in these circumstances and their frustration can intensify as
they face court delays, postponements and lockdowns for extensive periods since
the prison system is understaffed. The preceding conditions not only violate
the human rights of prisoners but they also force prison officials to work in
insecure and dismal conditions and simultaneously place the security of both
prisoners and officers at risk. Apart from Georgetown which is under
construction, all the prisons are old; overcrowded with little space to institute
comprehensive programmes to effectively rehabilitate prisoners, decaying
physically, structurally insecure and in dire need of renovation or rebuilding.
Altogether these circumstances have proven to be unsafe for both correctional
officers and inmates alike. The newspaper headlines over the past two decades
tell the story: Stabroek News February 25, 2010 “Public Safety…Inside Story:
The problems of the Prison Service; Stabroek News February 7, 2010 “Fatal
Prison Brawl …Inmate had Ranted about Killing Someone.”; Kaieteur News February
15, 2011 “Officers Fear Security Threat at Georgetown Prison”; Kaieteur News
March 1, 2011 “Dwindling Prison Staff Will be Dire for Administration.”; Kaieteur News
2019 “Prison Service Understaffed, Overcrowding still an issue”;
https://www.rt.com › World news Jul 10, 2017 “Inmates set
fire to Guyana prison, 4 escape, 1 officer killed …”;
Police stand guard outside Georgetown Prison after a
riot and fire at the facility in Georgetown, Guyana, Thursday, March 3, 2016.
17 prisoners died in the fire as they protested conditions inside the prison in
the capital of the South American country, authorities said. (AP Photo/Bert
In 2003, the
authorised strength of the GPS was 452 while the number of officers employed
was 369 which within the context of significant increase in the overall number
of prisoners and in particular violent prisoners, endangers both officers and
inmates (Disciplined Forces Commission Report 2004). In 2019, the GPS staff was
just over 500 and it was short of staff by 101. Note also that the statistics
hide the fact that many of the prison officers are women and civilian staff who
do not secure the majority of male prisoners.
The Prison Act
Chapter 11:01 requires that, “Every prison officer shall at all times carefully
watch the prisoners and shall use the utmost vigilance to promote industry.”
However, satisfying this condition is impossible in times when one prison
warder has responsibility for three locations simultaneously.
The GPS noted
as far back as 2003 that its greatest challenge to training officers is
“recruiting … persons with the requisite qualifications/academic ability
(Disciplined Forces Commission Report 2003, 251). This problem has persisted.
Consequently, staff levels continue to be inadequate and prison officers are
not properly trained to properly supervise the sizeable number of petty
offenders who are given custodial sentences and the growing number of violent
offenders. Security is further compromised with reports of widespread
corruption, mismanagement, bribery, favouritism and dishonesty in the GPS. It
is also reported that visitors pay prison officers to smuggle cell phones to
family members in prison. Officers are also reported to sell marijuana directly
to prisoners who in turn sell to other inmates. Raids conducted by the GPS
always unearth contraband items that likely were brought into the prison by
officers. Again, news reports tell the story: Guyana Standard June 19, 2019
“Prison officer allegedly caught with weed at Camp Street …”
https://www.guyanastandard.com › Court; Demerara Waves October 25, 2016 “Female
prison officer allegedly caught smuggling ganja inside the New Amsterdam Jail”;
INews Guyana Mar 5, 2019 “Drugs, weapons seized in Lusignan Prison raid”
https://www.inewsguyana.com › Crime.
Prohibited and illegal items found at the Lusignan
Prison [Guyana Police Force photo Mar 5, 2019]
Prohibited and illegal items found at the Georgetown Prison
[Guyana Police Force photo Dec. 8, 2018]
Guyana Prison Service
attention has been placed on reforming law enforcement and the judicial system
in Guyana, far less attention has been placed on comprehensive reform for
correctional institutions and the penal system in general. The three systems,
however, are inextricably connected within the criminal justice system and it
is also necessary that sufficient attention be paid to the needs of the penal
for improving the system that have emanated from the previously mentioned
capacity, renovating and transforming the Mazaruni Prison to house high profile
Increasing staff levels
and training to deal with increasing number of inmates;
policies including salary structures to ensure qualified persons are employed
and those that perform with distinction are promoted;
Auditing all prisoners,
separating and accommodating them according to security need, audit and release
remand prisoners in appropriate instances;
Create a manual that
sets out security standards and procedures and create monitoring systems to
oversee their implementation;
between the GPS, the GPF and the judiciary since the prisons are negatively
affected by deficiencies in the court system.
these recommendations, the GPS has been targeted for reform and a number of
initiatives have been undertaken, particularly over the past decade to
transform the prison environment, improve professionalism among prison officers
and employ more effective restoration and reintegration strategies. These
Passage of the Prison (Amendment) Bill 2009 to
modernise the prison service, enhance security within the prisons and offer
increased protection for officers but which could contribute to further abuse
of prisoners by prison officers;
Separation of first time young offenders from hardened
Introduction and review of skills training and
behavioural change programmes;
Conducting human rights training and other
professional training programmes for recruits;
Establishment of a sentence management board to assist
in the management of the sentences of convicted prisoners, including vulnerable
prisoners or those suffering from any disabilities;
Establishment of Prison Visiting Committees which
institutionalise civilian oversight of prisons, monitor the condition in
prisons and seek to ensure the protection of inmates’ human rights;
Design of the Justice Reform Sector Programme which
has placed emphasis on eliminating the backlog in both the civil and criminal
cases, upgrading the court environment, digitising the court registries,
training prosecutors and enhancing legislation and court procedures for
Magistrates and Judges, training prosecutors and mediators in alternative
sentencing systems to reduce the overcrowding in the prisons.
transformation process has commenced but there is much, much more work to be
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the colonial administration of British Guiana managed over a dozen jails, three of which still stand today. These are: Camp Street (Georgetown), New Amsterdam, and Mazaruni. The history of prison building and incarceration in British Guiana was the focus of a recently completed project, funded by the British Academy and conducted by researchers from the University of Guyana and the University of Leicester. The project asked questions about the role of prisons in the colonial justice system, and about historical patterns and experiences of imprisonment. It sought to find out whether history can offer lessons from the past that might be useful for understanding jails today.
The project team comprised myself and Dr Kellie Moss (Leicester) and Dr Mellissa Ifill and Estherine Adams (Guyana). Together, we undertook extensive research on colonial-era records held in our respective national archives, where we discovered a rich history of continuity and change. We found that colonial prison administrators kept coming back to the question ‘what is prison for?’ From that stemmed near-continual discussion of the same topics. These included the desirability of the separate treatment of different kinds of offenders (and adults and juveniles); the role of religion in rehabilitation; the deficiencies of prison infrastructure; prison security and escape; the morale of prison officers; and the education and training of inmates.
We presented some of our research to a group of serving prison officers, in autumn 2018, and had the opportunity to visit Mazaruni and New Amsterdam. Three things became immediately apparent. First, a great deal of colonial-era infrastructure survives today. Second, at least some of the daily rhythms of incarceration (including modern prison regulations) date from the British period. Third, there remain many parallels between the past and the present, regarding the active debate of exactly those issues that were discussed in the past.
and Georgetown Prisons are the oldest operating prisons in Guyana. They were
built by the Dutch, and extended by the British after they took
control of the colony in 1814. Later,
in 1843, the British constructed Her Majesty’s
Penal Settlement (HMPS) Mazaruni, near Berbice. They also built numerous
other district prisons, along with several ‘lock-ups’ in the more remote
regions. The government of Guyana built the other two modern institutions, Timehri
and Lusignan, following Independence in 1966.
The project found that the history of Guyana’s jails is intertwined with the history of colonialism, notably enslavement, immigration, and population management. During the era of slavery, the owners of enslaved persons punished their human property for what they perceived as labour infractions or ill-discipline, often using extremely brutal measures. After emancipation, the colonial state took on this role, and this was the background to the development of prisons in the 1830s and 1840s. The British imprisoned emancipated slaves and others, including Asian indentured labourers, for a range of offences. These included crimes against property, but also what they called ‘idleness’, and breaches of harsh labour laws, including unauthorised absence from home or work.
The project also discovered that the architectural design of and daily regimes instituted in Guyana’s prisons were strongly influenced by changing European and American thinking about their ideal form and function. The British adapted and built jails according to ‘modern’ prison design. Ideally, prisoners would occupy individual cells, and they would be punished and rehabilitated through a programme of education, work, training and Christian instruction. One notable feature of nineteenth-century punishment was the use of prisoners in colonial building projects. Inmates built and repaired streets and pavements, and constructed parts of the Sea Wall – in the latter case including through the draft of prisoners from Mazaruni to Georgetown. However, despite Britain’s claim to penal ‘modernity’, prisons could be violent places in which prisoners were chained, flogged or placed on harsh rations. Georgetown prison even had a treadmill, which constituted an extreme form of physical punishment.
From the very earliest days, where there were efforts to reform and rehabilitate prisoners, they were often frustrated by a lack of resource and difficulties in recruiting guards and other personnel. In large part, these failures reflected the fact that the British never came to a firm conclusion on the rationale for incarceration. Rather, jails always served a variety of purposes, and these were often incompatible with each other. For example, though the British wanted to use jails for different types of offenders, the pressure of numbers meant that prisoners were often transferred to inappropriate locations, and this put a strain on prisoner training, education and work. Also, guards often left employment, or retired early, due to stress and overwork. There even erupted various scandals where it emerged that guards had violently beaten and mistreated prisoners. This led to the establishment of a Board of Prisons in 1862, and the appointment of an Inspector General of Prisons from 1879. These measures increased government regulation over prisons, and enabled some positive interventions such as the introduction of tickets-of-leave (or what we would now call probation), which helped to rehabilitate and resettle inmates.
Several other themes emerged during our research project, notably regarding the mental health of inmates and guards. For example, we found archives that suggested that historically there was excessive consumption of alcohol (by inmates and guards), and that inmates routinely smoked marijuana. We also discovered that some prisoners hallucinated or had delusions, became suicidal, or were transferred to the ‘lunatic asylum’ in New Amsterdam. This led the research team to develop a more focused project, with the goal of exploring issues around the prevalence of mental, neurological, and substance abuse (MNS) disorders in Guyana’s jails. A collaboration between the universities of Leicester and Guyana, in partnership with the Guyana Prison Service and HMP Leicester, this project is both historical and contemporary. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, it will run until the autumn of 2021.
Social scientists know that attention to the relationship between lives and environments, and the production of an evidence base, are vital for successful research impact in a field now known as ‘global mental health’. As well as understanding individual health, we need to be sensitive to history, society and culture. Recently, researchers have argued that western concepts and models of MNS disorders require refinement, so that they do not produce misconceived diagnosis or become neo-colonial in their application of knowledge on a problem defined in the West. Our earlier historical research, against the background of this concern, forms the background to our new project.
The historians on the team, now including also Shammane Joseph Jackson and Dr Deborah Toner, are returning to the archives. Our team of anthropologists, criminologists, political scientists, and sociologists – Dr Tammy Ayres, Queenela Cameron, Professor Martin Halliwell, Dr Dylan Kerrigan, Di Levine and Dr Kristy Warren – are currently examining modern records and undertaking interviews, and will be running focus group workshops, with prisoners, prison officers, and prisoners’ families. Some of the things we want to find out about are how different communities – and men, women and youths – define/ defined and experience/ experienced MNS disorders; what constitutes/ constituted MNS disorders management and welfare provision; and how Empire and Independence impacted on prevalence, representations and experiences.
We want to see if it is possible to connect present-day challenges associated with MNS disorders to the history and legacies of the British Empire in Guyana. Our hypothesis is that the existence of MNS disorders in jails today can be traced back to the British colonial period. Thus, they cannot be disconnected from the country’s history as a sugar colony that employed and controlled indigenous people (Amerindians), enslaved Africans, and indentured labourers. We hypothesize that Empire created particular forms of trauma, shaped demography and religious practice, and instituted patterns of population control including through the building of jails. We seek to render this history actively part of the process of change today, by connecting new historical work to new research in and around prisons in Guyana today.