Mar 04, 2016 News
-President orders probe
President David Granger has instructed that a three-man panel be set up immediately
to investigate all the circumstances surrounding yesterday’s unrest at the Camp Street prison that resulted in the deaths of 16 inmates.
This was announced by Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan, who shared a hastily-arranged press conference with senior prison officials at the Ministry of the Presidency, hours after the situation was normalized at the country’s main penal institution.
Ramjattan said that the decision to establish the three-man panel was arrived at during a meeting of the National Security Committee, in the wake of the deadliest prison unrest in the entire Caribbean.
Yesterday prisoners in the Capital ‘A’ Block of the facility lit fires which reportedly got out of control, leading to several of them being burnt to death, while others suffered from smoke inhalation.
Ramjattan told members of the media that the President and members of the National Security Committee were adamant that the administration got to work quickly to ascertain what were the causes and reasons for the unrest so that a recurrence could be avoided. He confirmed that apart from the 16 persons who are dead, five other inmates received varying degrees of injuries.
The Minister declined to disclose the names of the dead, offering to make them public after the families would have been contacted.
Yesterday’s press conference was shared by Officer in Charge of the Georgetown Prison, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim, who told the media that the unrest was sparked by a successful raid on the capital – a section of the facility. This section houses remanded prisoners, most of whom have been committed to stand trial in the High Court for capital offences such as murder.
Pilgrim explained that at around 14:00 hours on Wednesday, the monthly Mandatory Joint Services operation commenced; the target was the new Capital Division.
According to Pilgrim, several prohibited items including 19 cell phones and a quantity of narcotics were seized during the two-hour search.
The officer in charge said that sometime later that evening, he received a call informing him that there were some disturbances on the same Capital Block.
When he responded, he saw the location in a state of unrest, with inmates setting fires to mattresses and other flammable material.
“For the period of last night (Wednesday) nine fires were set by the hands of the persons within the capital division, but with the assistance of members of the Guyana Fire Service, we managed to extinguish those fires,” Pilgrim said.
The situation returned to some semblance of normalcy that night but the inmates upped their demand for early trials, a demand they were advised to take up with the relevant authority – the court.
The prisoners also demanded the return of some of the seized items, but this was not complied with.
Yesterday morning, members of the Joint Services resumed their mopping up operations and according to Pilgrim, things were going smoothly until some of the inmates became unruly.
The Officer in Charge of the prison said that yesterday’s exercise involved getting the prisoners out of the building so as to effect repairs to beds that were burnt the previous night, and to search for other improvised weapons that they would have made with material from the damaged beds.
“During that exercise it was going quite smoothly, however as a result of some amount of prompting from members of the general prison population, some of the inmates refused to come out of the building. Chanting caught on throughout the prison, which resulted in the door being barricaded and fires being lit again,” Pilgrim explained.
He said that the standard action drill was initiated so as to bring the situation under some degree of control. The Fire Service responded and after several minutes of fire fighting, the blaze was extinguished.
When the smoke died down, a number of inmates lay dead with their skin severely charred from the fire, while others who appeared to be alive were quickly rushed to the Georgetown Hospital.
When asked about gunshots being heard, Pilgrim said that only one shot was fired in the entire operation.
However, there were different versions of what transpired being mouthed by relatives of some inmates of the prison.
One inmate said that the version of events given by prison officials is not entirely true.
He said that yesterday morning, prison officials, with assistance from other members of the joint services, had opened up the Capital ‘A’ building and were taking out the prisoners and securing them in another section.
However, when they reached the inmates who were described as the masterminds of the unrest, they became aggressive and encountered stiff resistance.
“Some of de men resist and start to light back de fire and officer (name given) lock de door. Dey throw tear gas inside de building and some of de men get black out. Who get bun up is who de get lef in de building,” the prisoner told this newspaper.
He said that while the men were burning inside the building, a prison official requested that the firemen go inside with gas masks to bring out the prisoners, but they refused.
Director of Prisons Carl Graham, after expressing sympathy for the “rather unfortunate and tragic event”, told the news conference that everything possible was done to prevent what transpired, but these efforts were unsuccessful.
“The Officers worked in the face of heat, where fires were being thrown by inmates, and very adverse condition to ensure that the prisoners were taken out of that building,” the Prison Director said. However their efforts failed.
Apart from some trauma and slight scalding, no Prison Officer suffered any serious injury.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Pilgrim acknowledged that overcrowding was a major issue at the Camp Street location, a sentiment echoed by Minister Ramjattan.
The media was told that Guyana’s main prison was build to accommodate 600 inmates but is presently housing 984.
The Capital ‘A’ Block was holding 68 persons up to yesterday morning.
Ramjattan said that the administration will be seeking ways to have prisoners’ matters heard quicker and in a timely manner, even if it means engaging the judiciary, magistracy and the Director of Public Prosecutions.
“This is a bugbear that could cause vexations,” said the Public Security Minister, who served as a prominent defence attorney before becoming a part of the present Cabinet.
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