The Commission of Inquiry appointed to examine the Camp Street Jail tragedy in which seventeen remanded prisoners perished and dozens were injured has been mandated to complete its work by March 15.
The undisputed fact, however, is that remanded prisoners from the bloc that houses them away from the convicted prisoners started to burn their mattresses Wednesday
night. These continued the following morning when the conflagration escalated and the startling number of fatalities and casualties ensued.
The prisoners were very vocal in explaining that their protests were meant to signal to the authorities, their anger over two sticking points: their trials being delayed inordinately and the subhuman conditions they had to live under. Both of these complaints had elicited protests from inmates for decades and several investigating bodies, foreign and domestic have suggested remedial action during that time, to little effect.
When the Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon visited the scene of the riot to meet the protesters, they both implicitly acknowledged the veracity of the prisoners’ claims in their responses.
The delay in trials of remanded prisoners is one of the darkest stains on our judicial system, if for no other reason than the presumption of “innocence until proven guilty” principle that is the linchpin of our criminal law is violated at some level every day the individuals remain in jail. Yet some accused are on “remand” for years. The source of this travesty in the law lies definitely in what is labelled as “judicial backlog” – judges hearing and bringing to judgement of cases the police would have brought before the courts.
This situation in turn can be traced to the minuscule number of Judges in the system which has been commented on by every Chief Justice and Chancellor for decades. Another problem is that even with the small number of judges, each of them is entitled to ten weeks of vacation. Three judges preside over each Criminal Assizes Session in Demerara while one sits at both the Berbice and Essequibo sessions, since the backlog in those two districts are not as high as Demerara. In the Demerara Assizes it is common for less than one fifth of the cases to be disposed of at each session.
Departing Chief Justice (ag) has been very scathing in his assessment of poor judicial work ethic in Guyana and there will have to be a system of review of Judges’ performance instituted. With the enormous backlog of cases looming over them, justice Chang did not believe judges should be allowed 10 weeks of vacation.
The previous administration attempted to alleviate the problem by increasing the statutory complement of judges from 12 to 20 but even though funds were allocated for the necessary courtrooms and chambers for the judges, nothing has been done. In his two budget speeches the present Attorney General, Basil Williams has also followed tradition and vowed to reduce the judicial backlog.
In fact just the week before the explosion at Lot 12 Camp Street, Williams expatiated on his administration’s efforts in this area, which would involve hiring part time judges for the overdue civil cases. Overall, in addition to bureaucratic lassitude, another reason for the inertia in this area is the general feeling in Guyana, expressed even in the midst of the present tragedy, that individuals charged for crimes are already criminals and “deserve what they get”. We all share some responsibility for this catastrophe.