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Improved prisons hinged on oil money- Ramjattan

Leader of the Alliance For Change (AFC) and Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan.

Guyana will have to await sufficient earnings from the oil and gas sector to build new prisons because international financial institutions have refused to provide financing, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan said Wednesday.

“That’s the difficulty an executive branch has when its resources are so limited but expect, with greater revenue streams coming from the oil and gas sector, we have the plans that will take care of major projects and more prisons and so on,” he said in response to a question by Demerara Waves Online News.

Some projections are that Guyana will earn about US$300 million annually from oil production out of the Liza Phase 1 well at 120,000 barrels per day, but with more  wells expected to come on stream earnings can grow to as much as U$7 billion annually by 2025.

The United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner,  had in 2017 recommended that the Lusignan Prison be shut down “without delay” and replaced by one that meets international standards. As recent as August 2018, the Private Sector Commission had said it was “disturbed by the less than humane conditions under which the prison population at the Lusignan Prison is housed.”

However, the Public Security Minister said government also had to satisfy other demands such as sugar workers’ severance pay and increased teachers’ salaries. Ramjattan said the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have told him they do not lend money to build new prisons.

“I had to tell them that you are making my police force better to increase people that we arrest and put in the prison and you not helping out by giving me a loan for prison,” he said.

Drone Shot of new holding area of Lusignan Prison (Department of Public Information photo)

Part of the problem, according to the minister, was that the Lusignan Prison now accommodates 558 prisoners as a result of last year’s destruction of the Georgetown Prison by fire. He admitted that the Holding Bay facilities at Lusignan were “not the best”. “It’s at most a half-scald situation,” he said.

Ramjattan admitted that the conditions at Guyana’s prisons, including balancing the welfare of inmates and the security of the wider public “gives me headache every night” but he has no more options.

Referring to the escape of three prisoners from the Lusignan Prison earlier this week and the subsequent fiery unrest, he said the prisoners there burnt about half of the mattresses and pallets that were given to them to sleep on. “It is an extraordinarily difficult circumstance. I don’t have any other suggestion that would better that for their security, for the citizens security as to what we can do there and especially in the context of being so destructive,” he said.

In terms of ongoing projects to improve the conditions at Guyana’s prisons, he said monies have been allocated to increase the accommodation of 300 prisoners at the Mazaruni maximum security jail, and the United States-based Steel Cell would be rehabilitating the Camp Street prison to accommodate 140 prisoners in “beautiful steel cells”.

Six of eight prisoners at the Lusignan Prison were sho and injured and rushed to hospital for treatment earlier this week after inmates in one of the Holding Bays tied their faces with clothing to conceal their identity and hurled missiles at the prison guards.

The Private Sector Commission and the Minister of Public Security have separately expressed concern that Guyana’s wooden jails are vulnerable to fires.