It has barely been 17 months since riots and fires at Guyana’s main prison killed 17 prisoners after inmates set fire to mattresses to protest poor food, overcrowding and inordinate delays in trials for those on remand, but as the week began, local authorities are again grappling with a major mutiny at the facility.
Late Sunday afternoon, five prisoners, including one on death row for murder, blasted their way out of the Georgetown Prisons in the Caribbean trade bloc headquarters nation, killing a guard, injuring several others, commandeering a vehicle and escaping into the dark.
But before they had gone too far, fellow convicts and remand prisoners set fire to the mainly wooden colonial-era facility, destroying the compound and forcing authorities to shuttle more than 1,000 men to other locations.
In one bizarre incident, authorities had temporarily moved inmates to the senior officer’s recreational club, directly across from the main blocks, while preparing to move them to a coastal location. While there, however, the prisoners treated themselves to liquor and food at the bar, and then set fire to the building, completely destroying it.
This week’s major mutiny in the prison system brought back all the memories of 17 months ago when inmates had complained about conditions and especially about long trial delays.
On the part of the authorities, their main grouse is the unreasonable and inconsistent sentencing policies of magistrates in the lower courts, as they are being blamed for filling up cells with suspects on remand for misdemeanor offences such as possession of an ounce of weed or larceny of a mobile phone.
The judiciary had earlier this year resorted to night courts to speed up hearings, but officials have complained that high bail for petty offences is also contributing to overcrowding and the rise in tensions, and even defeating the reason for night courts.
“This is a very unfortunate incident,” Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan said on state television. “Only last year we had a very bad incident. It is an unfortunate situation and we have to investigate what went wrong.”
Officials are already taking flack for announcing plans to rebuild the facility, which is in the heart of the city. Most citizens want it moved away from the capital to a less congested area, complete with court houses to conduct quick hearings and ease frustrations about overcrowding, but the government says money is the problem.
As authorities sweep the burned out remains for any corpses, five inmates remain on the run. Officials say they are armed and dangerous. The military is assisting in the hunt. The state will also have to bury officer Odinga Wickham, who took bullets to the chest as the men escaped. At least six other guards are in the hospital, one critical, with gunshot and machete wounds.
On carnival day back in 2002, four men crashed through the metal gates of the facility, shooting and killing one officer and crippling another. They later spawned a gang that terrorized the country for several more years. More than 25 law enforcement officers and a soldier have been shot and killed compared with only seven in the previous century.