Officers of the Guyana Prison Service, (GPS) testifying before the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the riot that led to the death of 17 prisoners, said that it took courage to stand their ground in the midst of the turmoil, they faced
on the day of the incident.
On Friday, Prison Task Force Officers, Udistair Holligan and Patrick Crawford, provided the tribunal with their accounts of the event.
Holligan, a Cadet Prison Officer and the Head of the task force, was first to testify. He told the Commission that he was summoned to the Georgetown Prisons to conduct a sanitation exercise.
The exercise consisted of a search and evacuation of the Capital A and B of the penitentiary.
Holligan recalled hearing officers and inmates, alike shouting to the prisoners in an effort to help them escape the inferno.
He said that the men were told to escape through a hole but none of them complied. He also recounted the fear and intimidation which gripped the officers conducting the rescue operation.
When I am sitting in my quiet moments, thinking back to that date I can still hear the screaming, the threats…It was as if you know, you did your job to the best but you didn’t do it good enough to assist on that day,” Holligan stated.
Crawford was almost tearful as he talked of the inmates who perished in the fire. He noted that the men were once persons whom he had steady interactions with. “I feel sad to know that they are no longer here,” he said
Crawford told Commission Counsel, Excellence Dazzell, that on the day of the fire, he was part of the task force operation which was seeking to break up prison gangs, extract their ringleaders and sanitize Capital Cell Block ‘A’ of weapons and other contraband.
The witness said those moments before the violent fire consumed Capital ‘A’, firefighters and prison officer tired relentlessly to open the doors and free the prisoners, who were trapped inside. He said that it was as if the doors were jammed from inside.
Crawford told the panel that his efforts to save men went beyond trying to open the door. He even went to the back of the building and instructed the men to climb through a hole in the wall that separated Capital ‘A’ and ‘B’ cell blocks of the jail house.
However, the witness recalled that there was a “lit mattress,” partially blocking the hole.
The officer said, too, that when that attempt failed, he and other officers ran to the back of the building with sledgehammers and other tools to break the back wall of the prison and free the men. But this method was also unsuccessful as the fire had already consumed the area.
The prison officer recounted that by then there was thick black smoke emanating from the opening of the heavily secured building. At this time, Crawford said that he knew nothing could have been done to save the men.
Further questioned about his work at the prison, the official told the Commission that he had participated in mock fire drills at Camp Street Prison before but he cannot recall whether checks were made to the doors to verify whether they were in proper working condition.
He reaffirmed that no tear gas was thrown into the burning building but only missiles (pieces of concrete blocks) which were tossed at joint forces officers by irate prisoners during the rescue operation.
The witness also noted that the officers of the prisons were not wearing any protective gear to combat the blaze.
The COI was ordered by President David Granger following one of the deadliest riots that took place within the prisons in recent years. Seventeen prisoners perished in the blaze and several others were injured.
The President appointed Justice James Patterson, Merle Mendonca and retired Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine as Commissioners to oversee the work.
The panel is expected to investigate, examine and report on the causes, circumstances and conditions that led to the disturbances on the morning of March 3, 2016, that resulted in the death of prisoners and any other subsequent disturbances at the Camp Street Prisons; the nature of all injuries sustained by the Prisoners, and any other subsequent disturbances.
Stakeholders whose views will be considered by the Commission may include staff of the prisons and their representative unions, members of the Judiciary, prisoners accommodated within the Camp Street facility, functionaries in the Ministries of Public Health and Social Protection and any other stakeholder whose input would be deemed appropriate.
Upon conclusion, the Commission is expected to render its report, findings and recommendations to the Minister of Public Security.
The Inquiry is being conducted in the Conference Room of the Department of Public Service, Ministry of the Presidency, 164 Waterloo Street, South Cummingsburg, and can be held in such other places as the Chairman may determine.
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