The Minister of Home Affairs, Robeson Benn says 140 prisoners of the Lusignan Prison are infected with the coronavirus and 80 of them have since been sent to a new isolation facility at Madewini, Soesdyke Highway.
He said the 80 were moved under tight security from the Guyana Prison Service, police force and the defence force. “We are taking active measures to create space that is secure and safe not only for the prisoners but for the public in respect of this matter,” he said in response to a question by A Partnership for National Unity+Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) parliamentarian, Dr. Nicolette Henry.
Mr. Benn said that around the time of last Saturday’s unrest, efforts were being made to set up another COVID-19 isolation area with tents, beds and cots east of the Lusignan Prison. He said those works have since restarted and are expected to be completed by Wednesday to further relocate prisoners.
The Home Affairs Minister said he could not provide details of the cause of death of the two prisoners because he did not have those reports. The reports from the prison service, he said, would contain details about the injuries.
Mr. Benn said funds have been allocated to construct a “new and modern” prison at Lusignan, a village located on the lower East Coast Demerara.
The United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, under the auspcices 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. The Working Group visited Lusignan Prison and found that majority of inmates in the prison are Afro-Guyanese. The inmates are kept in appalling conditions not fit for human habitation. The facility is located close to a landfill with foul odour coming from stagnant dirty water. The unhygienic conditions of the prison and associated health risks are of serious concern. Due to its wooden construction, the facility also poses a significant fire hazard. The Working Group found that the Prison clearly fell short of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules),” the Working Group had found.
The Home Affairs Minister recounted to the National Assembly that he and Health Minister Dr. Frank Anthony were forced to flee the Lusignan Prison as inmates there hurled pieces of concrete blocks at prison guards in and out of the compound. He justified the use of force by prison guards that resulted in the death of two prisoners an injury to five others. “The loss of life is in any event regrettable and sad, but I would have to say is that my understanding that the final perimeter of the prison was under attack and was being besieged, along with the warders, and they took the measures necessary to make sure that we don’t have a resumption of problems we have had in the past in relation to the outbreaks of prison,” Mr. Benn said.
The February, 2002 violent escape of five prisoners had spawned criminal gangs in Buxton that had led to years of killings, kidnappings, murders, disappearances and robberies.
The Home Affairs Minister said overcrowding of the Lusignan Prison had stemmed from the burning down of the Georgetown Prison from where inmates had been removed to holding bays at the East Coast Demerara jail. The Holding Bays, he said, also became overcrowded due to a recent fire at Lusignan Prison.
He recalled that on September 18 prisoners had refused to take breakfast but eventually took lunch and dinner. He said on September 19, they refused to take meals and they welcomed him and the Minister of Health at Holding Bay 2 where “we had a good discussion with them.” However, the security situation subsequently deteriorated. “While we were in Bay 1, a few of the prisoners at the back in the other bays started to shy sandcrete blocks, well pelt them, so they got very unruly and we exited the prison. On exiting the prison, they continued shying these blocks both inside and outside of the prison and we decided to leave at that point in time because the missiles were coming over the prison gate and people had to duck for cover,” he said.
The Home Affairs Minister said prison guards in the restricted area eventually ran out of the compound and “slam shut the main big gates” as the inmates continued to hurl missiles.