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Inter-American Human Rights Commission calls on Guyana to reduce prison overcrowding

FLASH BACK: Several prisoners leaving the Guyana Prison's Sports Club after detailing their grievances to Public Security Minister, Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State, Joseph Harmon after 17 inmates were burnt to death during the country's worst prison riot.

FLASH BACK: Several prisoners leaving the Guyana Prison’s Sports Club after detailing their grievances to Public Security Minister, Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State, Joseph Harmon after 17 inmates were burnt to death during the country’s worst prison riot.

Washington, D.C. –   The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the deaths of inmates at the Camp Street prison located in Georgetown, Guyana. The IACHR calls on the State to ensure that the ongoing investigations be conducted with due diligence and without delays, and that urgent measures be adopted to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.

Based on information available to the public, seventeen inmates died and seven were injured as a consequence of a fire at the prison facility on March 3, 2016. According to the national press, the incidents took place amidst a protest by the inmates against overcrowding, delays for prisoners awaiting trial, and other living conditions in the prison.

According to public declarations by Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan and State Minister Joseph Harmon, a meeting was held March 4, 2016, and a truce was reached between inmates and authorities, following which inmates agreed to cease disturbances in exchange for the improvement of their basic living conditions. According to available information, the government has also set up a Commission of Inquiry, independent from the police’s investigation, in order to clarify what occurred during these riots, and to issue recommendations.

According to the press, the inmates gave testimony before the Commission of Inquiry saying the fires began after a raid by police guards in the inmates’ cells. They also declared that when the fire began, the door to their prison block was locked. According to their testimonies, inmates called for the door to be opened, tried to break down a wall leading to another division in the prison, and attempted to douse the fire themselves, but there was no water coming to the facility. Inmates claimed than rather than being assisted, canisters of tear gas were thrown into the burning prison block, forcing them to the ground and impeding them from escaping. Press reports also indicate that when he gave testimony before the Commission on Inquiry, the Deputy Director of the Guyana Prison Service, Gladwin Samuels, denied that he had issued an order for the prisoners to be locked inside the block that was on fire, and he said he instructed a worker to utilize a power cutter to get the lock on the door cut, but the heat was too much to operate in.

The IACHR urges the State to guarantee that the investigation is conducted with due diligence. States have an obligation to conduct serious, diligent and impartial investigations on events that take place in prisons when these result in persons being killed or injured, such as in the case of this fire. These investigations must clarify what happened and result in sanctions for all persons who according to the investigation have had some degree of responsibility. They must also constitute a way of reparation for the victims. In addition, the authorities have a duty to inform on the investigation of these facts to the families of the victims. The State must also offer psychological assistance to the families of the victims and to the survivors.

The IACHR also notes that what happened in the Camp Street Prison took place in a situation of overcrowding. Public information indicates that the prison was built to accommodate approximately 700 inmates, but the official in charge of the prison, Kevin Pilgrim, publicly declared that there were 1,014 persons housed there at the time of the fire. It is also reported that pretrial detention is largely resorted to and that inmates often are kept waiting for years prior to their cases being heard. In this context, the Inter-American Commission urgently calls on the State of Guyana to take steps to reduce overcrowding and the use of pretrial detention, through the implementation of alternative measures. The use of precautionary measures other than pretrial detention is consistent with the exceptional nature of pretrial detention and with the right to presumption of innocence. Moreover, the use of alternative measures tends to be sustainable and effective as part of a comprehensive strategy to address prison overcrowding.

The IACHR reiterates that States hold a special position as guarantors of the rights of persons deprived of liberty. Consequently, confinement entails a specific and essential commitment of States to ensure the lives and safety of inmates. This “duty to ensure” means that States must take all necessary measures to prevent situations of risk, such as the situation arising in this instance, from seriously jeopardizing the fundamental rights of inmates. Along these lines, States have the obligation to ensure that prisons have adequate, safe structures and the appropriate measures, action plans, and sufficient, trained staff in place to maintain security in its prisons and to handle emergency situations, such as fires. The IACHR believes that prison overcrowding not only constitutes in itself a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, but is a factor that jeopardizes the life and personal integrity of those who are incarcerated in a particular facility. Thus is it imperative for the national authorities to take all measures that may be necessary to ensure that prisons do not hold more inmates than they are equipped to house based on their real capacity.

A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

  • MEMES Unlimited

    From my Christian perspective, Jesus said, and I quote…”remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body”.

    A stinging rebuke from a body of international acclaim and much influence critiquing an event of unparalleled proportions of the worst occurrence, ever, of all the Commonwealth nations, and subsequently treated in a less than serious, diligent and impartial manner with the “hurry up” directives issued and implied to the less than professional CoI board conducting the preliminary investigation. Wondering what the recommendations will be to law enforcement/DPP for criminal charges, if any, to be issued against offending person(s). People died, their families are in deep grief and someone is culpable……..

    • SYL

      You are taking the sayings of Jesus out of context. He referred to those who professed to be Christians and were being prosecuted wrongfully Having cleared the air on that, lets note that the prisoners were smart enough to burn their own beds. I agree that over-crowding is an error, and should have been dealt with based on the evidence now at hand.However, everyone seems to highlight the families of the prisoners , but fail to highlight the RIGHTS OF THE VICTIMS OF THE FAMILIES THAT THE PRISONERS VIOLATED.They are the ones suffering and tax payers money been spent to keep the prisoners fat , nice and dandy .. HR needs to find solutions to prevent criminal activities and not only being a watch dog.They should keep the pressure on governments to make sure that institutions are in place and functioning with effective programs to deter and prevent criminal activities.However, that the real problem world wide, because the law makers are the law breakers , so there is no real solution except a new world.The fat cats are voted into power by the masses of which the majority are middle and lower class people,and once , then the cats do not assist in providing gainful employment, so this equates into lack of income, and consequently leads the weak minds into criminal activities.The fat cats need to share the spoils with the poor.

  • rs dasai

    IAHRC.
    A very simple matter to solve. Give us the $$$ to build a BIG prison. Say US$150m.

  • Ricardo.Diaz70@hotmail.com

    America’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded, BUT AGAIN THIS WILL GIVE GANGA ANOTHER CHANCE TO FREE ANOTHER SET OF HIS COMRADES SO THEY CAN MAKE THE CIRCLE AGAIN.

  • MEMES Unlimited

    Thank you sir. For me personally, I am convinced that the teachings and spirit of Christ/the Messiah, represents a paragon of unparalleled virtue. His core teachings are so centered within love, respect, forgiveness, acceptance and care for each other, and PEACE….that peace that surpasses all understanding.

    Christ never “compartmentalized” humans as so many of us do…He is truly all inclusive.