GEORGETOWN –– 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 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 the administration had got to work quickly to ascertain what were the causes and reasons for the unrest so 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 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the monthly mandatory joint services operation had commenced; the target was the new capital division.
According to Pilgrim, several prohibited items, including 19 cellphones and a quantity of narcotics, were seized during the two-hour search.
The officer in charge said sometime later that evening he received a call informing him 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 yesterday’s exercise involved getting the prisoners out of the building so as to effect repairs to beds burnt the previous night, and to search for other improvised weapons 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 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 firefighting, 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 only one shot had been 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 the version of events given by prison officials was 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 Kaieteur News.
He said that while the men were burning inside the building, a prison official requested 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 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 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 were told Guyana’s main prison was built to accommodate 600 inmates but housed 984.
The Capital “A” Block was holding 68 persons up to yesterday morning.
Ramjattan said the administration would be seeking ways to have prisoners’ matters heard quicker and in a timely manner, even if it meant engaging the judiciary, magistracy and director of public prosecutions.
“This is a bugbear that could cause vexations,” said the minister, who served as a prominent defence attorney before becoming a part of the present cabinet.