Mar 18, 2016 News
– Inmate says were Deputy Director’s orders
By Jarryl Bryan
Capital ‘A’ Block inmate, Desmond James, yesterday testified before the tribunal probing the deaths of 17
prisoners at the Camp Street prison that he heard Deputy Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels, issue the order to lock the front door of the Capital Crimes prison block, thus sealing the fate of the inmates who perished.
James, who gave his testimony to a hushed room at the Public Service Ministry boardroom in response to questions from Attorney-at-law Dexter Todd, made it clear that while he did not see Samuels, his voice was well known, as he would frequently make visits to the section.
James testified that on March 3rd, he heard Samuels’ voice, from outside, command “lock de door and leff dem inside”. The inmate related that at this point, prisoners were either about to exit the facility or were packing their belongings, following orders that they leave so that a search could be facilitated.
“He said lock de door and leff dem inside,” James related. “He was talking about the rest of inmates.”
The inmate related that an officer was outside the door at the time. Pressed by Todd to describe the officer, James could not give a detailed description. However, he testified that the officer immediately obeyed Samuels’ order, and some of the prisoners then returned to their bedsides.
Samuels was sent on leave by the Government soon after the fatal blaze. At the time, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan had stated that the decision stemmed from concerns raised by prisoners, among other considerations.
But James’ testimony that there was no disturbance by the prisoners on March 3rd, that would have necessitated that they be prevented from leaving, is in line with Wednesday’s testimony of Capital ‘A’ Block inmate Michael Lewis. James’ testimony that authorities did little to free the inmates during the blaze echoed Lewis’ statement.
Under questioning from Todd, James also testified that it was unlikely prisoners were unduly upset on Thursday March 3rd, as searches were a regular exercise. James’ testimony and that of Lewis have so far largely differed from official explanations given by prison authorities for the events of March 2nd and 3rd.
In a press conference the day after the catastrophic fire, Officer in Charge of the Georgetown Prison, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim had told members of the media that the unrest was sparked by the monthly Mandatory Joint Services operation which began on Wednesday, March 2nd.
According to Pilgrim, several prohibited items including 19 cell phones and a quantity of narcotics were seized during the two-hour search in the new capital division. The officer-in-charge had related 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 reported seeing the location in a state of unrest, with inmates setting fires to mattresses and other flammable material.
“For the period of last night (Wednesday March 2nd) 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.
He had stated that the situation returned to normalcy that night, but the inmates were demanding early trials. He said that the prisoners also demanded the return of some of the seized items, but this was not complied with. He recounted that on Thursday morning (March 3rd), members of the Joint Services were extracting inmates to repair burnt beds when some of the inmates became unruly.
“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 had explained.
He said that the standard action drill was initiated, so as to bring the situation under some degree of control, with the Fire Service responding and, after several minutes of fire fighting, the blaze was extinguished.
Part of the testimonies of the two prisoners has so far been that on March 3, there was no disturbance by the prisoners until after the door was shut, after which a fire was started near a hole made between Capital Blocks A and B.
Lewis’ testimony has also been that the blaze was only accelerated by tear gas being thrown into the block, while James has claimed that the prisoners were left to die by authorities.
James’ testimony was, however, hotly contested by Canadian-based Attorney-at-Law Selwyn Pieters, representing the state. Pieters called James’ testimony into question, especially his signed statement which was submitted against the objections of Guyana Bar Association representative, Christopher Ram. It was subsequently established that due processes were not adhered to.
Pieters also suggested that judging by his minor injuries (James testified that he only got injuries on his knee), he was not even in the area where Rayon Paddy and the other inmates burnt to death. He also queried whether James saw inmates attacking officers who were trying to help. Pieters went on to suggest that the prisoners were the authors of their own demise.
This James denied and he also concurred with Todd, who pointed out how unlikely it was that prisoners, trapped in a burning building and terrified for their lives, would attack officers trying to free them from the inferno.
Before the hearing proceeded, objections were also made by Ram about the fact that James should have been given the chance to waive his rights to an attorney. James was obviously unrepresented. Attorney Todd is currently appearing individually, on behalf of two prisoners.
Ram’s application was ultimately denied and the hearing proceeded.
HEROICS OF A DEAD PRISONER
Only one day after Lewis would have testified of the advice the late Rayon Paddy had given to deal with tear gas, James also offered insight into the last actions of the ex-Guyana Defence Force rank, who once stood accused on two counts of murder, several counts of robbery under arms and possession of narcotics.
James made it clear that, had it not been for Paddy, he might have been among the dead. He stated that after Paddy advised him to drop to the ground; he complied and lay on his stomach at the side door. He said that he was “forced to breathe from the crease between the door jamb and the floor and scream for help”.
He recalled that a prisoner named Bacchus finally came outside the door and subsequently returned with a prison officer who had a bunch of keys. However, he recalled that none of the keys worked and they subsequently left.
James also recalled that Paddy was not far from him and largely unharmed, until he realized that one of his friends, “Elephant”, was missing. James stated that Paddy left and went into the blaze looking for him. According to James, the next time he saw Paddy he had already been severely burnt with his skin hanging off.
James also affirmed that the prisoners were neither suicidal nor desirous of burning down the prison block. He stated that they instead were calling for help for more than an hour but no one came. James related that he had to listen to the prisoners in the vicinity of the fire screaming in mortal agony until the screams eventually stopped.
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