January 21, 2018

Why not just prison reform

In the aftermath of the latest conflagration at the Camp Street Prison, there are once again calls for “prison reform” — this time, bound by the exigency of having to either replace the structures that were completely razed. However, these calls cannot be addressed in isolation and outside the need for broader criminal justice reform.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) advises, “It is of utmost importance that prison reform is not regarded in isolation from broader criminal justice reform. UNODC believes that effective prison reform is dependent on the improvement and rationalisation of criminal justice policies, including crime prevention and sentencing policies, and on the care and treatment made available to vulnerable groups in the community. Reform of the prison system should therefore always take into account the needs relating to the reform of the criminal justice system as a whole, and employ an integrated multi-disciplinary strategy to achieve sustainable impact. Thus reform initiatives will usually need to also encompass criminal justice institutions other than the prison service; such as the judiciary, prosecution and police service, as relevant.”

But there is a prior question that must be answered: what is the purpose of incarcerating persons convicted of crimes? Traditionally these were four: punishment, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. The greatest confusion lies in a disagreement on what constitutes “punishment”. Most persons still hold that, after conviction of a crime against society, the person placed in jail must then be “punished”. Incarceration is thus seen as depriving the inmate of all his/her human rights. It is because of this view that the harsh treatment of prisoners by wardens and prisoners are excused, and calls for more humane treatment are derided as demanding “hotel accommodations”.

But as the UNOCD has stated, “A sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty. It does not entail the restriction of other human rights, with the exception of those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison. Prison reform is necessary to ensure that this principle is respected, the human rights of prisoners protected, and their prospects for social reintegration increased in compliance with relevant international standards and norms.”

In other words, we must understand that the removal of the convicted from society IS the punishment. Depriving criminals of their freedom is the way of making them pay a debt to society for their crimes. This is the “retribution” – not starving them, or forcing them to sleep in the stench of their urine, etc.

As such, the question as to whether individuals on remand should be housed in the same facilities with convicted prisoners should not even be raised. These individuals have not been tried; and one would have thought it obvious that they should be detained only if they do not pose a risk to society, and when they are, the conditions of detention must reflect the presumption that they are innocent.

It was very disconcerting to discover that half of the inmates at Camp Street were on remand, and that one day after the blaze, dozens of them were freed by a magistrate. Why could this not have been done in the first instance? It is obvious that sentencing guidelines have to be completely revamped. There have been calls for whatever facility is constructed at Camp St to be designated to house individuals on remand, who can be brought to the nearby courts more expeditiously.

We understand that Guyana is still a poor country, with limited resources; but surely, the removal of criminals from society — so that they can no longer harm innocent people (incapacitation) — should be enough of a deterrence to prevent the commission of future crimes. Combined with a programme of rehabilitation, this should help reintegrate them into society, and prove less costly than the present astronomical rate of recidivism.

For the incorrigible criminals, we will just have to create facilities to incarcerate them for life.