Mar 14, 2016 News
By Michael Jordan
Every man has nightmares, sometimes, but not like the ones that tormented Vernon Lambert. In those nightmares, a burly man would be locking off his throat; he would see his long-dead friend George Cantzlaar, and he would hear the men in the jailhouse baying for his blood.
And the worst part was that the monsters in his dream were real.
It was 1959, and 33-year-old Lambert had recently gained employment as a warder at the Georgetown Prisons. In fact, he was still on probation; too ‘green’ to even wear his first uniform.
On January 10, Lambert was sent to work in the ‘Brick prison’, the section holding prisoners in solitary confinement.
He was partnered with George ‘Daddy’ Cantzlaar, a strongly-built senior prison officer. The two officers were instructed to ‘exercise’ the seven prisoners in solitary. At around 2:00 p.m., Cantzlaar ordered Lambert to enter the exercise yard. The young officer felt a surge of apprehension at the thought of being in such close proximity to the hardened criminals. Nevertheless, he obeyed.
Prisoners in solitary were usually among the most violent of Camp Street’s inmates. Because of their temperament, prison officers were instructed to release one prisoner at a time into the exercise yard.
But somehow, two convicts persuaded Cantzlaar that his work would be easier if he released them two at a time.
Cantzlaar agreed. He should have known better.
Green though he was, Lambert knew that prisoners were not to be trusted.
Standing in the exercise yard, Lambert saw prisoners leave their cells, bathe, and return to confinement. Then, at around 3.00 p.m, he saw two convicts, Wilbert Henry and Dennis Semple, approaching him. As they came nearer, Semple dropped back. Henry, a strapping convict, walked past Lambert. Then all hell broke loose. An escape move was about to unfold.
Lambert suddenly felt an arm around his neck. Someone was trying to choke the life out of him. It was Henry, the prisoner who had walked past him. As Lambert struggled with his attacker, Semple, the other convict, drew a baton and began to rain blows on the warder’s stomach.
At first, Lambert, who had boxed and was physically fit, remained passive and endured the blows. But then the convict began to strike at his face. A blow caught Lambert on the mouth and he felt a tooth break. The convict raised the baton again, this time aiming for the warder’s eye. Lambert blocked, catching the blow flush on his forearm.
As he struggled with the prisoners, part of him wondered: Where is Cantzlaar? Why isn’t he helping me?
Realising that Cantzlaar wasn’t coming, Lambert began to shout for help. His cries of ‘murder’ alerted Edwin France, a cadet officer. Seeing the commotion, France scaled a wall and entered the exercise yard. But Charles James, the convict who had masterminded the operation, kicked France’s whistle out of his mouth before the cadet officer could summon help. At that point, the inmate clubbed Lambert on the head. He collapsed.
Groggy and bleeding, the young warder seemed to hear a voice saying: “You better get up, those boys will kill you…”
Summoning reserves of strength, Lambert began to blow his whistle. In response, other officers began to blow theirs. The whistle blasts seemed to confuse one of the intended escapees, who was scaling the prison wall. He perched on the wall, as if uncertain of his next move. But then his cell cronies shouted to him “wuk bannas, wuk,” and he scrambled to the other side of the wall.
But the alarm had summoned the Chief Prison Officer, Edgar Baird, who began to enquire about Cantzlaar’s whereabouts. Finally, he was told that the warder was in a cell.
Still groggy from the attack, his shirt drenched in blood, Lambert followed the Chief Prison Officer to the cell.
And there he saw his colleague George Cantzlaar, and now understood why the veteran prison warder had not come to his rescue.
Cantzlaar’s legs were bound with shoe laces and a piece of chain. A flour-sack towel was knotted around his throat. Bending to Cantzlaar, the Chief Prisoner Officer cut the gag. Lambert watched in horror as blood gushed from the dead man’s mouth.
Lambert was sent to the infirmary. A head wound he sustained required ten stitches.
While there, he heard the inmates shouting: “We want blood.”
Concerned for his safety, the prison officials hustled Lambert through the prison’s back gate. He was taken to the Georgetown Hospital, where he collapsed again.
When he recovered, he was in a ward surrounded by persons who were praying for his recovery. The Director of Prisons also visited him. He would later learn that convicts Charles James, Wilbert Henry, Dennis Semple and Douglas Lewis, called ‘Sotie’, had scaled the prison wall facing D’Urban Street.
James, Henry and Semple were recaptured shortly after, while Lewis was later found dead under mysterious circumstances in a house.
It was later alleged that James and Lewis had killed Cantzlaar, with Henry and Semple acting in consort with them.
Lambert was summoned as a witness in the trial of the three convicts. He was terrified at first. He’d overheard some of the Camp Street inmates mutter, “God, is only one man dead and is three prisoners got to hang?” Ironically, the notorious Edward Lashley, who had butchered a policeman in a James Street canal, agreed that the men should hang. Gradually, Lambert gained enough courage to testify against the accused.
His testimony, and that of other eyewitnesses, would lead to James, Henry and Semple being convicted on April 23, 1959. They were all hanged.
But it wasn’t quite over for Vernon Lambert. He had to decide whether he should return to the job that had almost cost him his life. Memories of his escape and Cantzlaar’s death haunted him. Even some seasoned prison officers advised him to stay off the job.
Instead, to the surprise of many of the inmates, he returned to face them. The ordeal toughened him. He stood firm against hostile prisoners and gained their respect.
“Prisoners are not to be trusted,” he once told me. “You have to think ahead of them. In the old days they would have sharpened spoons. When you go to peep in their cells you put one hand in front of you. In that way you can grab the spoon and prevent them from boring out your eye.”
“I’ve seen one prisoner push a sharpened spoon up an officer’s nose because the officer told him not to carry the spoon into his cell. They also had sharpened wires, which they could push up under your ribs.”
As for Cantzlaar, he had made the fatal error of thinking that he could trust the prisoners that he and the convicts on Camp Street were ‘alright’.
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