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More prisoners removed from Lusignan; non-custodial penalties for marijuana possession to be fast-tracked

Mazaruni Prison being extended; Lusignan conditions being improved

Public Security Minister, Khemraj Ramjattan addressing a University of Guyana-organised Turkeyen-Tain Talks on Youth Crime and Violence

At least 300 of the 1,008 prisoners, who  were displaced by last Sunday’s destruction by fire of the Georgetown Prison, have been allowed to leave the holding facility at Lusignan, East Coast Demerara, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan said Wednesday evening.

He also announced that construction work at Lusignan continued Wednesday to improve the conditions for the prisoners who are currently being held in a highly fenced pasture and exposed to rain and sun since Sunday night’s inferno. “We are building some sheds on a tarmac flooring so the mud on the ground there is being filled with sand and asphalted and three or four sheds are going up so that the rain and the elements can’t beat down on the prisoners as is happening right now,” he said when asked by Demerara Waves Online News.

Giving an update on progress being made to relocate a number of the prisoners from the Lusignan holding facility, he said 85 have been sent to the Mazaruni Prison, 56 others, who are due to complete their sentences in the coming days have been so far released, and an undisclosed number has been sent to the New Amsterdam and Timehri Prisons.  The Minister said plans are being made to grant remissions to prisoners at the other jails to make space for those who had been held at the Camp Street prison and are now at Lusignan.

“If you can grant more more remissions to let’s say (prisoners) at New Amsterdam and they go home, we have more space to carry some more to New Amsterdam,” he said.

He also said another 250 prisoners would be relocated to the lone standing concrete block at the Camp Street site after that building is rehabilitated, debris removed and  the kitchen repaired in the coming weeks. He reiterated that the Georgetown Prison would be a remand center.

With almost all of the records having been destroyed by the fire, he said some ledgers and computerised data that contained the prisoners’ register were taken out of the administrative building.

Eight prison officers were shot and chopped, and one has since succumbed. Two prisoners who attempted to escape were shot by security forces. So far, wanted bulletins have been issued for eight others who escaped after setting the mostly wooden jail alight.

After acknowledging at a University of Guyana-organised forum on Youth Crime and Violence that a GYD$60 million project to clear the backlog and reduce the number of inmates failed after the March 2016 fire that burnt 17 inmates to death, Ramjattan later told reporters that he would be pushing for an amendment to the Psychotropic and Narcotic Substances Act to allow for non-custodial sentences for small amounts of marijuana. “I think it is required that we make sure that there are non-custodial penalties for those offences. The law has already been laid in Parliament by Mr. Carrington and we have to go and now get it passed. I hope that we are going to get it passed,” he said.

An artist’s impression of the proposed extension of the Mazaruni Prison.

With regards to the other recommendations by the Commission of Inquiry into the March 2016 Georgetown Prison fire, he said virtually all of them were implemented. “In relation to the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, we have done almost everything that the Commission of Inquiry recommended except make a new prison,” he said, restating that a new prison would cost GYD$6 billion and “we don’t have that money.”

He used the opportunity of the forum held at the Pegasus Hotel to announce that a brand new modern extension of the Mazaruni Prison that would house another 400 inmates. He said the design of the secure facility has been completed and inmates would be unable to burn it. Recently,  GYD$26.5M was approved for the provision of consultancy services for the design of the expansion of the Mazaruni prison.

Government’s Department of Public Information said Wednesday that the expansion will entail the construction of solid cast foundations, wall supports and internal fixtures such as wiring, utilities and other features being built over a one-year period. The new section, which will be adjacent to a part of the old prison, will also feature automated locks, sprinkler systems and forced ventilation. Twelve concrete houses are also being built to accommodate prison offers stationed there, at a cost of $178 million dollars.

Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels and Junior Minister of Public Health Dr. Karen Cummings speaking with injured Prison Warden Hubert Trim at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC)

Insisting that the Executive (political directorate) implemented almost all of the recommendations such as better screening of food being provided to inmates by their families. However, he said items such as cigarettes and lighters were hurled over the prison fence and prison guards were also complicit in certain illegal activities. “We have guards all over, yes, and if they are not seeing, what do you do about that? I don’t know what I can do with the guards? Do I knock them off? I knock them off and you tell me that I terminate wrongfully. It is a difficult situation and a lot of people who are making criticism don’t want to join the prison service to begin with them but they got nuff talk. They don’t want to go because the salaries are bad. They don’t want to go because the conditions are bad,” he said.

The Public Security Minister cited the need to modernise the security sector because “I still believe that our systems are in Jurassic park category.” “We are doing our best in the circumstances. We are going to try as best as possible to better the situation and the difficulties by overcoming these challenges,” he told the well-attended forum.

An amendment  to that law, sponsored by Alliance For Change (AFC) parliamentarian, Michael Carrington more than one year ago, did not appear to get the green light from A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) section of the governing coalition. He said the delay in approving the amendment was due to “some problems as to when we should bring that up.” However, Ramjattan said Wednesday that APNU  supports the call for the law to be amended.

Attorney General, Basil Williams is on record as saying that such an amendment has to first go to the executive for approval before it is taken to the House.