History of Prisons in Guyana
Professor Clare Anderson on the history of prisons in Guyana.
In 2016, I visited the beautiful country of Guyana, for what would turn out to be the first of seven visits over the next six years. I am an historian of empire and punishment, and in previous months, when I was writing a European Research Council supported global history of convicts and penal colonies, I had become interested in a place called Mazaruni. I had discovered a whole host of records including plans and colonial enquiries in The National Archives at Kew. Once a remote penal settlement in what had been the colony of British Guiana, Mazaruni is now part of the Guyana Prison Service’s prison estate. By coincidence, at this time and through participation in a British Academy supported network on crime in the Caribbean, based at Leicester, I had met a lecturer from the University of Guyana. Dr Mellissa Ifill, quite by chance, also sat on the Prison Service’s Sentence Management Board.
Mellissa, who has become my great friend and collaborator, invited me to Georgetown, where I delivered a public lecture, and met other colleagues from the University of Guyana, as well as government ministers, Prison Service personnel, and the British High Commissioner. Unexpectedly, the minister gave permission for me to visit Mazaruni, and my journey began in the middle of the night, taking me along the coast and up a 15-mile wide river on a wooden speedboat to what was once the mission station of Bartica. After I transferred onto the prison boat, I was able to walk around Mazaruni, look at the historic infrastructure, and meet staff and prisoners. I became even more fascinated in the history of colonial punishment in a place that was once peopled by enslaved and other forms of coerced labour, and importantly for the direction that my research has taken I started to wonder what that history means for criminal justice in the country since it became Independent in 1966.
My visit sparked a longer-term collaboration between the two universities and the Guyana Prison Service. Our first project was funded by the British Academy, under the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) programme. Myself and Leicester-based researcher Dr Kellie Moss worked together with Mellissa and another fantastic colleague in Guyana, Estherine Adams. We researched the history of all the British-built prisons in the country, and then took our findings to the Prison Service, asking them how we could best present them in a way that they could use. Together, we decided to transform our research into accessible materials for use in cadet training programmes and other public-facing events. These booklets, and an associated academic article, are open access (the latter became a Top Ten download in its first year of publication).
During this project, in a workshop with frontline officers, we discovered striking continuities in colonial practice in the operation of prisons today. As a consequence of this, we began to think about taking our project into the modern period, and secured funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, again via the GCRF, to carry out a much larger study. This focused on the colonial and modern periods, especially the challenges of mental health and substance use amongst prisoners and the people who work with them, which had emerged as a key theme in our British Academy work.
Our team of 12 Leicester and Guyana-based researchers worked together from 2018-22 to gather material from archives, undertake interviews with prisoners and prisons personnel, and get perspectives from focus group work with prisoners’ families.
Dr Kellie Moss also worked with MSc engineering student Joseph Beyera to produce a VR model of Mazaruni, which was later used as the basis for the development of a VR model to train officers to work in new infrastructure currently under construction at the prison. During the pandemic, she also developed a COVID-19 dashboard APP, supported by Leicester’s Professor Manish Pareek’s expertise in respiratory health, for the use of the Prison Service.
The whole team collaborated also with the NGO Sustainable Specialists in Youth Development (SSYDR), whose director Fiona Wills taught all of us skills in working in the field, and helped us in our goal of ensuring that all our researchers were exposed to unfamiliar research methods, as well as the research resources of our respective countries. For example, our Leicester-based criminologist Dr Tammy Ayres collected historic newspaper articles at the National Library of Guyana, and our Guyanese political scientist Queenela Cameron learned about sources in The National Archives in Kew. Shammane Joseph-Jackson interviewed the judiciary on Guyana’s COVID-19 response; historian Dr Deborah Toner delivered workshops with the Prison Service, and public health specialist Professor Martin Halliwell interviewed prisoners and staff. We also undertook several reciprocal visits, with the UK team researching and co-delivering events in Guyana, and vice versa, including training delivered to all via the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies (LIAS).
During our project, we held several workshops with prison officers, and written and talked about our work in the Guyana press, and on breakfast television and radio. Half way through the project, the team held a policy briefing with the Right Honorable David Lammy, MP, then Shadow Secretary of State for Justice.