The inseparable history of jails and colonialism in Guyana
Professor Anderson’s research has shown that the history of Guyana’s jails is intertwined with colonialism. During the era of slavery, slave owners punished their human property for what they perceived as labour infractions or ill-discipline, often using extremely brutal measures. After emancipation, the colonial state took on this role, through the development of prisons in the 1830s and 1840s. The British imprisoned emancipated slaves (and their descendants) and indentured labourers for a range of offences, some of which were crimes against property, but also included what they called ‘idleness’ and breaches of harsh labour laws, including unauthorised absence from home.
The project has also discovered that the architectural design of and daily regimes instituted in Guyana’s prisons were strongly influenced by the changes in thinking about their ideal form and function from Europe and America. The British adapted and built jails according to their ‘modern’ prison design ideals, where prisoners would occupy individual cells and would be punished and rehabilitated through a programme of education, work, training and Christian instruction. Colonial-era punishment often used prisoners in colonial building projects, with inmates building and repairing streets and pavements, and constructing parts of the Sea Wall.
An impact still felt today
The project team presented their historical research to prison officers in Guyana in 2018. It became apparent that there is still active debate around the purpose and form of prison. Much of the colonial-era infrastructure still survives today, and many of the routines and regulations in the prisons date from the British period.
Building on the findings that historically there was excessive consumption of alcohol by inmates and guards, that inmates routinely smoked marijuana, and that some prisoners had mental health conditions and were transferred to a ‘lunatic asylum’, Professor Anderson secured further ESRC funding for a follow-up project which is exploring the current prevalence of MNS disorders in Guyana’s jails. The research team has returned to the historical archives, but is also examining modern records and undertaking interviews and workshops, with prisoners, prison officers and prisoners’ families. The team is exploring how different communities define and experience MNS disorders, management of the disorders and welfare provision, and how these have been affected by Empire and Independence.