National Assembly denies motion for CoI into Lusignan Prison unrest

-Minister Benn says focus would be on prison system reform

The National Assembly, on Thursday, denied the Opposition motion to appoint a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate the unrest at the Lusignan Prison on September 19, 2020. Instead, Minister of Home Affairs, Hon. Robeson Benn said the administration is focusing on reforming the prison system.

Minister of Home Affairs, Hon. Robeson Benn

The motion, which was moved by Opposition Member of Parliament, Hon. Geeta Chandan-Edmond, was defeated by the Government, which used its majority to vote against it.

During the debate, Minister Benn told the National Assembly that while it is regrettable that two persons lost their lives during the unrest, the Government could not support the motion.

“While we continue to work at improving the conditions, the welfare and the housing of both the prisoners and the staff, I think it would be wrong for us to get bogged down in Commission of Inquires. And, given the fact that we do not have a properly constructed document with respect to the ‘where as’ clauses and the solutions, I am not in a position to support the undertaking of any Commission of Inquiry,” he said.

Minister Benn reminded the National Assembly of the COI which was conducted into the Camp Street unrest in 2016. He added that the recommendations from that inquiry were never implemented, and that the administration would be examining those recommendations.

“The conditions which created the situation [that] unfolded in September, which led to the deaths of those persons started, in my view, with the fire and the unfortunate deaths of 17 persons in the Georgetown Prison, and it was compounded by the fact that they put these men from the Georgetown prison and added to those at Lusignan, mix them all together and had them under sheds,” he said.

Minister Benn said the Administration is working on establishing five new prison pods at Lusignan, and by the end of this year, three of those facilities would be available to house about 600 persons. Construction of cells at the Mazaruni Prison were also restarted.

Minister of Health, Hon. Dr. Frank Anthony

Meanwhile, Minister of Health, Hon. Dr. Frank Anthony said there needs to be a combined effort to improve the country’s prison system.

“I don’t think that right now there is a need for a CoI. What we need to do is to continue doing the reforms that we have, continue improving the place, implement some of these recommendations that were not implemented since the first COI and we need all sides for us to put our heads together to make sure that we improve the conditions of the prisoners in our prison system,” he said.

Dr. Anthony said after discussions with the prisoners, who complained of having to wait long periods for trials even as the COVID-19 pandemic prevails, interventions were made to establish 20 container courts to facilitate virtual hearings. He announced that another 12 would be brought into operation this year.

Additionally, Minister of Labour, Hon. Joseph Hamilton chided the Opposition for the mismanagement of the prison system during its tenure. He reminded the National Assembly that it was the Opposition Member of Parliament, Hon. Khemraj Ramjattan who had responsibility for the prison service over the last five years, and that it was during his leadership that 17 persons lost their lives following the unrest at the Camp Street Prison.

Minister of Labour, Hon. Joseph Hamilton

Minister Hamilton added that the motion brought by the Opposition lacked clarity, in that it did not specify the need for such an inquiry, and had no proper recommendations on measures to avoid the recurrence of such an event.