Deadly prison riots in Guyana, 17 dead

Inmates who rioted at Guyana’s main prison facility for the past three days Friday signed off on a gentleman’s truce with authorities to cease rebellious activities following an unprecedented meeting with cabinet members who have pledged to deal with several decades-old grievances including delays in trials, better food, and officer brutality.

A visibly rattled Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan and State Minister Joseph Harmon Friday met with a group of more than a dozen handcuffed prisoners to hear reasons for the riot at the Georgetown Prisons that led to the deaths of 17 inmates, injuries to eight others as well as several guards during a fresh round of unrest Friday.

The riots began on Wednesday night with inmates setting nine fires to beds and furniture and causing a serious disturbance at the prison in the heart of Georgetown City, the capital.

Authorities called in the riot squad, soldiers and other armed security personnel to quell the blaze and restore order. By Thursday morning, fires were again set this time it consumed 17 inmates after colleagues had barricaded doors with bed frames and pelted guards with objects as they tried to get to them. The inmates also accused officers of severely beating them and pushing some of them back into burning cells.

Early on Friday, a single fire was lit and inmates erupted again, forcing riot police to lace them with tear smoke but the eight officers rushed to hospitals for treatment appear to have suffered the brunt of smoke inhalation and were spirited away from the facility while colleagues battled to quell the rebellion.

Mid morning Friday as well, ministers Ramjattan and Harmon agreed to meet with a representative team of inmates and said after a hour-long session that a truce had been agreed on while irritants would be fixed by government immediately.

Minister Ramjattan said some of the measures to improve conditions at the prison would include better quality food, an increase in the twice per week number of telephone calls to families, while authorities plan to lobby the judiciary to speed up trials for inmates on remand for misdemeanors and felonies. Some inmates are awaiting trials for up to five years.

In turn, the prisoners have agreed to cease rioting, setting fires to beds, hurling rocks and objects at guards and generally causing unrest at the facility, built for about 500 but now housing twice the number.

“We have agreed to keep our end of the bargain and they have agreed to keep theirs,” Harmon said.

Ramjattan said a board of inquiry into the deaths of the 17 on Thursday will be established to probe reasons and to deal with some of the deeper problems at the facility including the need for increased physical space.

“This was a very useful meeting with the prisoners,” said Harmon. “A prison is not a five-star hotel but we have to have some minimum standards.”

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