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Lessons from Georgetown Prison fire

Published: 
Tuesday, July 11, 2017

​A full investigation of Sunday’s fire at Guyana’s Georgetown Prison may take some time to be completed, as details of how it happened and how inmates may have set the prison on fire as part of an escape plan are still emerging.

Although the facilities–also known as Camp Street Prison–are different from our prisons, including the presence of wooden structures on site, there are many parallels between Georgetown Prison and Port-of-Spain’s on Frederick Street.

This latest fire–one of many in the Guyanese prison’s history–should serve as another warning to our prison authorities about the situation here.

First of all, both prisons are very old. Port-of-Spain’s was completed in 1812, while Georgetown’s is over 130 years old.

A fundamental problem with these old prison complexes is that they were built to now outdated concepts; they are from a time when rehabilitation was foreign to prison systems and prisons were seen as places where inmates were simply warehoused until the end of the sentences or their lives.

Given their age and original designs, over the years these prisons became a collection of buildings from different ages, extensions and adaptations that put the whole structure under strain, threatening security as well as the safety of those inside.

And, then, there’s the location issue. With its Frederick Street location, Port-of-Spain’s prison is in the heart of the capital city, a wall away from government and business buildings, residences, schools, etc. It may have made perfect sense to be where it is back in the early 1800s, when the city was considerably smaller, but not in the 21st century.

After all, it’d be difficult to imagine seeing a major prison not far from Capitol Hill in Washington DC or Westminster in London given the security risk they would pose. And because prisons are best located in less densely populated areas, best suited for the space required to accommodate inmates, to have modern prison facilities and to include additional buffers between the cells and the world outside.

Port-of-Spain Prison has not been free of trouble during its history–with the big prison break in July 2015 still fresh in our minds.

This is unlikely to change especially as the facilities continue to age and overcrowding remains an issue. A trawl of news reports over the past few years on this newspaper alone brings up a number of incidents or warnings involving the prison: escapes, structural problems and even rat infestation are part of the reality of the place.

However, just as the incidents are fairly regular, so are the warnings and talk of its closure. As recently as in 2012 the then Commissioner of Prisons Martin Martinez was stating that the time had come to close the Port-of-Spain Prison for good, following discussions initiated a few years earlier. So far, nothing.

Although this is perhaps unsurprising given the many promised or planned changes that never seem to be executed by different administrations over the years, it remains worrying. The old prison in Port-of-Spain ought to be decommissioned sooner than later in order to increase the public’s safety, the chances of rehabilitating those serving jail sentences and to provide the infra-structure needed for prisons officers to make sure cells are not some kind of executive office of gang leaders and major criminals who use time in jail to continue to run their operations.

A move from Frederick Street can also prove to be a good financial decision. Given its central location and what real estate agents like to call “character” of a 200 year old site, the buildings could be ripe for redevelopment; all over the world, old prisons are being redeveloped as hotels, offices and apartments. This trend makes sense–they allow for the construction of new prisons in more suitable location and help with the redevelopment of areas normally devalued by the presence of a prison so close by.