In what is being called historic for the justice system in Guyana, virtual “container courtrooms” were launched on Monday to provide a safer way of hearing cases and facilitate speedier trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fourteen containers, retrofitted with audio/visual equipment and internet access, have already been installed at the Lusignan Prison on the East Coast of Demerara and are set to begin hearing cases almost immediately. At Lusignan, the 14 additional courtrooms will supplement the five that were already implemented.
Four such courtrooms were also installed at the Camp Street Prison in Georgetown while eight will be installed at the New Amsterdam Prison, three at Mazaruni and four at the Timehri Prison. Each of these facilities also has a control unit as well as a backup generator system and washroom facilities for prisoners.
However, relatives of prisoners will not be able to physically attend court but will be provided with web links to the hearings.
The initiative which is fully funded by the government include the retrofitting of containers with the requisite technology to be used as courtrooms without the magistrate being physically present and without the prisoners being transported. Each container court room includes a flat screen monitor with internet connectivity and chairs for the prisoners.
Minister of Legal Affairs and Attorney General, Anil Nandlall, stated that technological advances are now being utilized more than ever and the judiciary will not be left behind. This new initiative will also reduce the high transportation and security costs for transporting prisoners to and from the physical court rooms.
“This measure will bring great relief to the prison population who often agitate and protest the delays in court hearings.
“It will also alleviate the great cost associated with the transportation of prisoners from prisons locations to magistrate’s courts across the country. It will bring great speed to the justice system; it will protect the magistrate the prisoners, the police officers and the court staff from being exposed unnecessarily to the deadly COVID-19 virus,” the Attorney General stated.
While virtual court hearings began in April this year, there were not enough facilities and technology for criminal trials and hearings for prisoners.
The Attorney General revealed that virtual court will be a permanent fix for criminal hearings even after the pandemic.
“This is one of the features which we can retain permanently even after COVID-19.”
Chancellor of the Judiciary, Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards said a criminal task force was formed due to the pandemic and includes representatives from the Guyana Police Force, Prison Service, Director of Public Prosecutions and the judiciary. This task force looked at ways to continue hearings and trials under the pandemic.
However, Justice Cummings-Edwards stated that the pandemic is no exception for hearings in a reasonable time for prisoners, as stated in the constitution.
“With this we know have a safe way of hearing cases. We all have many more cases to be heard, speedier trials, and we in the judiciary welcome this in particular because speedier trials mean a lot. Fair hearing within a reasonable time, that constitutional act, will be upheld and realized even more,” Justice Cummings-Edwards said.
In an effort to further reduce the prison population due to the pandemic, a statistical audit was conducted where the prison administration and the judiciary revisited the policy for imprisonment.
The audit provided prisoners who were imprisoned for more than five years to be prioritized for hearings and for persons who could not afford bail, a reduction was implemented.
Additionally, Minister of Home Affairs Robeson Benn said the initiative is important to make up for time lost and reduce issues related to safety, security and logistics in respect to the handling of prisoners.
In the New Year, the government will also be looking at ways to improve the living conditions of prisoners.
The, Director of Prisons (acting) Nicklon Elliot assured that the facilities will be maintained and taken care of.