Reformation, not incarceration: Prisoners tell their version of life behind bars

By Shaquawn Gill

The Mazaruni Prison has only been a figment of the common citizen’s imagination for many years. From its opening in the mid-1800s, and during its reign as Guyana’s largest and most remote penitentiary, not much has been said about the things that occur in and around its walls. So – the question is asked – what happens at the Mazaruni Prison?

With more than 240 inmates, the ‘prison island’ (though not an actual island) is home to two separate holding facilities. Sibley Hall Prison is the less commonly known holding bay that is home to mostly first offenders. Prisoners there are typically clad in all grey jumpsuits and are usually those serving shorter sentences.

Mazaruni Prison, on the other hand, is home to the ‘big dogs’ of the prison system, with prisoners carrying the cross of 20+ years – and even those “condemned” – being held there.

The Big Smith News Watch has realized that there is a common misconception about what happens when one is either remanded or convicted and sent to spend time behind bars.

“Prison is about going in, spending yuh time fuh yuh wrongdoing, and coming out back,” one man interviewed by this publication noted.

But upon our visit, we identified a completely different atmosphere.

The Mazaruni Prison is built on high ground, with an almost resort-like entrance to the facility.

Rocks were meticulously laid to spell out ‘MAZARUNI PRISON’ with the Guyana and Prison Service flags flying high just before the entrance of the prison.

Covering more than 5 acres of land, the environs of the prison is flush with vegetation, enough to feed cattle for decades to come even if nothing is regrown. As a result of this, the administration of the prison has an intense agriculture and cattle-rearing program that several of the prisoners are allowed to be involved in. Our visit revealed that pigs, goats, and cows were among the animals under the care of the prisoners.

                                               Cattle Rearing being done on the outskirts of the prison

Additionally, the prisoners have been planting crops – eddo leaf, pak choi, and cassava had just been sown at the time of our arrival.

However, not every prisoner is allowed to participate.

Well-behaved prisoners who are highlighted as good leaders are given a special title as ‘orderlies’. They can be compared to the prefects of a school system. These prisoners can walk around almost freely, take care of their cattle, and perform any other duty as may be required by the administration of the prison.

Moreover, prisoners are also involved in many other ‘extra-curricular’ activities offered by the prison. We were granted permission to speak to a few of them to gather their insight on how being involved in these activities have worked for them.

Roy Lewis, a convicted prisoner who works in the tailoring shop of the prison, highlighted how much peace being able to be a part of one of the prison’s programs was to him.

“Well, when I came in prison, I didn’t know to sew…it just keeps me active from day to day, being able to occupy my time, so I’m not stressed out and at least when I come out I have some work that I know to go and do,” Lewis explained.

                                                          Roy Lewis working in the Tailoring Shop 

The 45-year-old highlighted that being a part of the tailoring shop has specifically enabled him to foster a high level of patience, as is usually required in such an occupation. “I can say that I have learnt to cope with my anger and be more [patient]…” he described.

The tailor shop is mainly responsible for the sewing and alteration of officers’ uniforms. School clothes for children are also made at the tailor shop.

From a handier perspective, the prison also offers classes in carpentry, masonry, and other basic skills in the labouring industry. Older prisoners with vocational experience in these fields have been seen sharing their knowledge with younger inmates.

Inmates working in the ‘Trade Shop’

One of these knowledgeable inmates is the 54-year-old Michael Abrams who is one of the senior inmates within the ‘Trade Shop.’

He explained that inmates working in that facility are usually responsible for assisting in new construction and renovations to be done within the prison walls. Before the pandemic, orderly inmates were allowed to travel to Bartica (under the guidance and supervision of a designated prison officer) and partake in any other construction activities they were hired to do.

                                                                               Michael Abrams

Abrams, like his fellow inmate, opined that the knowledge he has been able to garner while in prison will benefit him once he gets the opportunity to be reintegrated into society. “I have been able to garner a great deal more. So now, I can safely go out there…and I would be able to hit the ground running because construction is always available,” Abrams said.

While knowledge is indeed an integral part of prisoners inducting themselves into these classes, it is also important to note that that may not be the only reason prisoners are as interested as they are.

Prison systems around the world for centuries have instituted a system that many prisoners look forward to benefitting from – remission. According to the Justice Action Organization in Australia, remission is defined as the reduction of the term of a prison sentence, usually as a result of good behaviour and contribution to the prison itself during an inmate’s tenure.

Abrams said that this basic incentive has galvanized many inmates to become actively involved in the various programs that the prison has made easily accessible. “One of the reasons why a lot of persons come out to work is because they hope that they will be rewarded with remission because that is very important to us prisoners,” Abrams explained.

The 54-year-old man, who has been at Mazaruni since 2017, explained that many of the men housed at the prison seem to be easily influenced. Luckily, the inmates working at the trade shop have been able to influence them in a positive way. “When they see you progressing, and learning and they see you building, they want to come and do that also,” Abrams recalled.

Meanwhile, the Art & Craft industry within the walls of the prison continues to boom. One of the more senior participants in this program is 26-year-old Trudy Samuels, who hails from Santa Mission.

                                                    Flower vase made of a paper base and soap petals

In his brief interview with this publication, Samuels described a few of the products he and his fellow inmates creatively made over the years. “Well basically, I started off with leathercraft by making keyrings and leather belts, purses, etc…from that I learnt colours and the variation of colours then I went into canvas painting which gave me the opportunity to be, you know, more creative,” he said.

                                                                             Trudy Samuels

As he advanced his skill, Samuels said he moved on to interior decorating and was able to encourage the other inmates to ‘get with the program’.

Samuels explained that upon his entry into the institution and being granted the opportunity to learn Arts and Craft, he has been able to adopt a more positive way of thinking. “I came to prison very young, at the age of 21, and since I find myself in the arts and craft [program], I find myself thinking in a more positive way, just occupying the mind being creative rather than being idle,” Samuels explained.

Samuels said though his journey has not been easy, being a part of the ‘extracurricular’ activities of the prison has allowed him to be more excited for what the future holds. “I [realize] that I’m thinking way ahead of me, in terms of coming out of prison and getting the younger generation involved in these activities also,” he noted.

                                                                   ‘Paper Duck’ done by inmates

The young man, who has been incarcerated since 2015, explained that what is now most important to him is to pass down the knowledge he has been able to receive to the other willing inmates who have chosen to be part of the Art and Craft program in prison. “Being in prison, I’ve learnt. And I’m always willing to teach [those] who are willing to learn…I’d find myself doing craft and I’d bring someone in, show them ‘aye this is how we can be creative, we can earn from this and instead of being idle we could find, you know, activities to do with ourselves,” he said.

“Prison is a life-changing place. It is the path you choose in prison. You can come in prison as a bad person and leave prison as, you know, a very good person by finding yourself involved in the training programs, the rehabilitation programs that they have. It’s just the mindset that you have,” the 26-year-old highlighted.