Reducing penal overcrowding and IDB funding

Reducing penal overcrowding and IDB funding

Dear Editor,

I ATTENDED that press conference last Monday on reforming the prison system to reduce jail overcrowding, using alternatives to imprisonment (as reported in GC Nov. 25). Excellent report from your reporter. The Attorney-General, Hon. Anil Nandlall, SC, was the main speaker. The Director of Prisons and a lawyer were also speakers. The AG was absolutely brilliant in his ideas of prison reform and inmate reduction. He expressed his commitment to make the project work. Does he have the right and committed people to make it work? Are the people in the project working with criminologists? Is there an effective programme (of carrot and stick and of counseling, for example) to restrict criminality?

The press conference was related to a prison over-crowding project in Guyana funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) with a US$8M grant. The project started in 2017 with some quarter of the funds already expended, but nothing significant achieved over that three-year period; not even a policy framework or working paper on how to reduce prison overcrowding. Was the money properly spent? Was an audit done? The IDB’s auditor should be called in! My investigation into ersons involved in the project from 2017 reveal that the bulk of the money was spent on rental and paying personnel; some of whom seem to have been cronies of the predecessor regime. Rental cost of the private property of a supporter of the previous Government is huge. The intention of the IDB funding was not and is not to enrich political people, but to create a workable system to reduce criminals in incarceration.

Virtually little has been undertaken on reforming the prison system to reduce overcrowding. Guyana is known to have one of the highest overcrowding (140 per cent) of prisoners in the world, as well as among the highest incidence of criminals in incarceration. I have a doctorate in sociology, among multiple PhDs; criminology is a mandatory sub-field in the study of sociology.

My recent readings on criminology suggest that countries around the world have been moving towards alternatives to imprisonment to reduce jail over-crowding. The European Union and the US have expended huge amounts of money on alternatives to imprisonment to reduce the number of criminals in the lock-ups. Non-threatening criminals are given alternative punishment; money is spent on retraining police officers, judges, prison officials, etc. and on offering counseling to criminals etc. so as to reduce the numbers of inmates in jail.

I applaud the IDB for funding this experimental project in Guyana. In my teaching in NY (taught for some 40 years), with training in conflict resolution, I chaired a committee in my school, as head of my union, on alternatives to student suspension (akin to criminality, and some students were indeed involved in criminal or deviant behaviour for which alternatives to court trial or jail or suspension were considered). My committee looked at reparation and compensation and other alternatives to repairing relationships and the victims of deviant acts. There was significant success in reducing suspensions, and lowering court cases. It is unfortunate that this project was not adequately advertised by the previous regime, and that experts in the field were not consulted for ideas. Money was expended, and little achieved; fat salaries were paid to cronies. A studious policy on this project is needed. The government should seek expert advice from sociologists at UG or the diaspora on ideas or a policy framework.

I listened attentively to the AG at the press conference. First, he read a very well-written speech, giving the background to the project and aims and objectives. He did not address money, staff, and costs. I picked up that information from investigative work as someone trained in journalism (been in the media for some 45 years; so I know tips on gathering information). It was a well-written, prepared, delivered speech. But I thought the AG was more impressive when he spoke without prepared notes, off the cuff. He was very articulate, fluent, eloquent, compendious, sharp, crisp, pithy, roundly, cogent using criminology terms I had long forgotten during my courses in sociology many years ago.  I can see why everywhere I traveled and queried respondents in a poll, there was a positive rating of the performance of the AG Anil Nandlall; almost 100 per cent, including among those who voted for APNU.

In reforming the prison system to reduce overcrowding, one has to reduce deviant behaviour or pursue alternatives to court and jail. To do so, one must be cognisant of history and culture of criminal jurisprudence and laws, mores, traditions, and social discipline within society. I have not studied criminology in Guyana, but it is important to get experts in a committee or commission to prepare a policy paper on the subject.

As I learn from my studies, imprisonment and confinement of deviants or sociopaths or psychopaths are not always effective. The purpose of imprisonment is not to torture the prisoners but to change his or her mindset so as to stop committing crimes. It is also not to make prison a five star hotel with prisoners as tourist guests. Alternatives to imprisonment are not to let the criminal get off scotch free but to reform them and it is for ‘soft criminals’. Basic intent of law is not to terrorise people into following the law. The punitive system must instill a value system in them so that they aspire to reform themselves.

To reduce prison overcrowding, one must pursue a policy to deter criminals from returning to jail — reforming the criminals. Criminals must be provided some kind of vocational training or skill set so that they can earn a living after spending time in jail rather than become dependents of the state or having to return to stealing or drug trafficking to survive. At the same time, criminals must be schooled into making amends to society and to their victims; victims must be compensated.  There must be mandatory duties or volunteerism to repair society and victims. On reforming criminals, the ultimate objective is to lessen incidence of crime and to convince criminals that “crime does not pay” which must be pursued simultaneously with rehabilitation of prisoners. It may not work with dangerous criminals and psychopaths who may have to be locked away.

There is no doubt that imprisonment is costly to the state – in confining and feeding criminals and looking after their health and security. The numbers in the prison must be reduced as it is among the highest in the world in terms of number of criminals in prison per100K of the country’s population. Alternatives to prison are welcomed.  Civic conflict resolution to minor, non-violent crimes should be experimented.  There should be judicious mix pf carrot and stick, not just jail alone. And victims must be compensated from the labor of the perpetrators.

A detailed study of Guyana’s criminal jurisprudence is required. One need to know what classes, regions, communities are in crime – identify the people, socio-eco groups, ethnicity, and nature of criminality. A holistic policy on crime reduction is needed, not piecemeal reform. The entire system must be reformed. One needs to know what was the motif behind the crime – pecuniary, racial, and social aspects, etc. The varied aspects of criminology have to be understood and a policy developed. One can look at what other countries are doing about reducing prison overcrowding.  Have a study done and apply to our society! Otherwise the remaining US$6M will be spent and there would be no progress in reducing prison overcrowding. The expended funds should be audited and the programme evaluated for its progress and re-oriented to achieve IDB goal.
The AG is on the right trajectory. He needs a team of experts to study and propose workable tested solutions to prison overcrowding overseas and commence an experiment in Guyana.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram (PhD)

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