The recent violent attacks at the New Amsterdam Prison have raised serious concerns about security deficiencies at the facility, including the ability of inmates to procure sharp implements and acid with ease with the possible aid of guards.
Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee last week expressed concern particularly at the last two attacks, which occurred within three weeks of each other. Though he said that a Board of Inquiry has been set up to probe the attacks, retired Police Commissioner Winston Felix says that the problem lies in the uneven ratio between the prison population and prison staff. He is suggesting that the staffing deficiency be addressed in conjunction with the introduction of surveillance cameras to increase monitoring of both the prisoners and their guards, thereby ensuring better security at the facility.
Over the years, there have been a number of attacks at the prison. Based on this newspaper’s research, there have been three armed attacks at the New Amsterdam Prison this year. The first occurred on April 29 when Brian Hescott was stabbed with an ice pick. Hescott, who is serving a sentence or armed robbery, and a murder convict were involved in a scuffle during which Hescott was stabbed in the chest, resulting in his hospitalisation.
Four weeks later, on May 23, prisoners Abdul-salam ‘Sato’ Azimullah, 31, of Hampshire, Corentyne, Davendra ‘Bara’ Harricharran, 28, of Nigg, Corentyne and Kwame Bhagwandin, 32, and Clarence ‘Wild Hog’ Williams, both of Angoy’s Avenue, New Amsterdam, were attacked by a gang of about five other inmates.
Bhagwandin, who was chopped and doused with acid, is now recuperating at home after his family paid his $180, 000 bail.
Harricharran is also at home, having posted $1M bail, while Williams is a patient of the Georgetown Hospital where he is scheduled to undergo surgery. Azimullah, who has been committed to stand trial for murder, has been returned to the prison with both his hands in cast, unable to fend for himself.
On June 14, another prisoner Tameshwar ‘Rambo’ Khemraj was stabbed and chopped several times after being attacked by three other inmates. The 28-year-old man, of 171 Nigg Village, Corentyne, was subsequently admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the New Amsterdam Hospital. A source had told Stabroek News, that the argument between Khemraj and the trio stemmed from some old problems with one of the two brothers accused in the murder of a Corentyne businessman.
Stabroek News was able to speak with a former prisoner and relatives of some of those injured in the May 23 attack.
Harricharran, 28, told Stabroek News that the attack occurred around 5.30 pm, when the alleged mastermind, identified only as ‘Shoulder,’ managed to subdue a prison warden. The man had indicated to the guard that he wanted water and the unsuspecting guard opened the door to the cell to facilitate but when his back was turned, the convict reportedly choked him from behind until he was unconscious.
Harricharran said ‘Shoulder’ then took away the guard’s master key and proceeded to open several nearby cells, freeing his four accomplices. He said that the quintet then strapped themselves up with pieces of cloth, picked up cutlasses and a metal container which had acid and proceeded to the cell housing Bhagwandin, who was doused with acid and chopped about his body then left to die.
The man explained that the cells which housed the quintet and Bhagwandin are located on the ground floor. After carrying out the attack on Bhagwandin, the inmates then proceeded to the upper flat, where the cells housing himself, Azimullah and Williams were located. According to him, the men went to one cell after the other and continued their rampage.
Harricharran said that they were screaming during the attack and this alerted the prison wardens that something was happening. However, he alleged that they did nothing and all he could have done was run for his life.
The man pointed out that there is a shortage of prison guards at the facility and those who were on duty at the time, although armed, chose to secure themselves and call for police back up. It was almost an hour between when ‘Shoulder’ overpowered the guard and when the police arrived, he said, adding that the attackers intended to open more cells but were interrupted by the arrival of the police.
The man insisted that the prison officials are aware of the entry of illegal items into the prison. He explained too that items get into prison at a price.
Harricharran said that when he was discharged from hospital several days ago, he was returned to the New Amsterdam Prison. He said that he and Azimullah were taken back the same time. However, four days later he was released after his relatives posted $1M bail.
He said that he is feeling much better but explained that he cannot walk properly as he sustained a serious chop to his right foot. He said that he was chopped to the bone and in the process a vein might have gotten damaged. He also sustained chops to ears and neck during the incident.
He said that he hasn’t gotten any news on the whereabouts of the attackers. Stabroek News has been told that ‘Shoulder’ has been transferred to the Georgetown Prison, while two others are being housed at the Lusignan Prison.
The spouses of two of the prisoners, Bhagwandin and Azimullah, indicated that attempts were made to alert prison authorities about the impending attack but these were ignored.
Bhagwandin declined to speak with Stabroek News, however, his common-law wife, Richlyn Smith, related what he had told her about the circumstances surrounding the attack that has left his face disfigured. She stated that he was badly burnt with acid to the face and stomach and he was also chopped to the hand, back and foot.
The woman, who has a one-month-old baby, said that given her husband’s condition, she was surprised that he was taken to the prison after he was discharged from the Georgetown Hospital, as oppose to the New Amsterdam hospital. She was later told that prison officials were following rules.
Smith stated that Bhagwandin told her that on the day of the attack he was lying in his cell when he heard people hollering, which prompted him to get up. Shortly after, two men, known to him, appeared at his cell and threw the contents of a bucket they had at his face. “They come and they just dash acid in he face,” she recounted, adding that at that point he turned and the two men took the opportunity to open the door to his cell and continued their assault. She said that she believed that the acid attack was just part of the plot to distract him so that they could chop him.
Smith stated that Bhagwandin tried his best to fight the men off, using one of his arms to bar the chops, and somehow he managed to run out of his cell. She said that once outside, he encountered two armed prison officers but they did not to help him. His recollection of the day, according to Smith, became fuzzy after that.
Bhagwandin told her that he and others had overheard details of the planned attack and attempted to get the attention of the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of the prison and they even protested but this did not work. She opined that had the OC listened to her husband, the attack could have been avoided.
“Somebody had to take it [the acid and the cutlasses] in,” she said, while noting her shock at what had transpired. She said too that she was surprised that the prison officers were unable to stop the attackers, given the fact that they had guns and could have shot the men in the feet. “Prison officers are supposed to serve and protect. If they were doing that this would not have happened,” she said, adding that the attack needs to be investigated.
But Azimullah’s spouse, Shevanie Penchaloo, called ‘Vanie,’ indicated that the officer in charge of the prison was informed of that acid was taken into the prison but no action was taken.
She explained that her husband was in a cell with two other prisoners but he was the only one who was injured during the attack. The woman said that he told her that his attackers entered his cell and started chopping.
Penchaloo said that after he returned to the prison, the police went and took a statement from him. She believes that her husband is in too serious a condition to be in prison. She said that his hands are in casts and in addition to the chops he sustained to them, injuries were also inflicted to other parts of his body. She said in total he had approximately 15 chop wounds.
She said that he was asking for bail but was told he could be released because he was committed to stand trial in the High Court for murder.
According to Penchaloo, her husband is still crying out for pain and because he is an inmate she can do little to help or look after him. She said that she was told that there is someone in prison who helps him but she did not know much about that arrangement.
She alleged that when Azimullah appeared in court recently in connection with a robbery case, he was slapped and because of his injuries he was unable to help himself.
Felix, who is the shadow Home Affairs Minister for the main opposition APNU, told Stabroek News in an invited comment that the problem in the prison system has to do with large numbers of prisoners and too few prison officers to supervise them.
“…At times one prison officer is left to supervise too many prisoners and this gives rise to issues escaping the prison officers’ attention,” he explained.
He noted that like the police, the remunerations for prison officers is not encouraging and officers find ways to make money on the job. “This is not acceptable but it happens,” Felix said, adding that there is collusion between prison officers and prisoners to get prohibited items into the prisons.
He added that although prison officers have been caught and had their services terminated, the illegalities still prevail. He added that prisoners find ingenuous ways to deceive officers to get what they want into the prison, while also noting that there is a culture in the prison system where certain officers and prisoners have such a comfortable relationship that “the prisoners who do certain favours for these officers get favours from officers in return and consequently prohibited items get into the prison with the acquiescence of officers.”
“Maybe, recruitment needs to be examined to determine the quality of recruits admitted to the service, more particularly their psychological make-up. Training for junior ranks might need upgrading and the provision of restrictive equipment to control/restrict potential violent prisoners,” he said, while also observing that senior ranks could also be compromised.
Felix opined that a viable option to dealing with this issue is introducing technology into the prison not just to observe prisoners but also to record the activities of officers so that their actions could be monitored. He suggested that using surveillance cameras with offsite monitoring facilities 24/7 can be explored.
He said that prison officers’ actions should be monitored to ensure that they do what is required and to hold them accountable for their actions. Prisoners too need to be under constant surveillance to determine their actions and their regular contacts and places of concealment, he said.
Felix said that while the Board of Inquiry, if properly conducted, could bring to attention several areas where action needs to be taken to strengthen the system, there are areas where action can be taken that does not need a board to advise the Minister and the Director of Prisons. He said that the wide spread use of cameras within the prison to detect errant prison officers and prisoners must appear to be a useful tool to employ at strategic points in the prison and out of the reach of prisoners and officers.
Prison system reform
Stabroek News questioned Rohee specifically on the May 23 and June 14 attacks. He said that the Ministry has a Board of Inquiry to conduct investigations. “Hopefully within the next couple of weeks they will be able to complete their investigations and they will submit their report with recommendations to the ministry of Home Affairs,” he said.
Stabroek News has since learnt that these attacks are being investigated by the police.
Asked if he is concerned given there were two back-to-back attacks, Rohee responded, “Of course. I am the Minister of Home Affairs… I must be concerned. I have to be concerned that is my job to always be concerned when incidents like this happen–whether it is back-to-back or belly-to-belly–in the prison system.”
He also said that there is a strategic plan for the reform of the prison system which is being implemented although it did not receive parliamentary approval. He said the plan wasn’t meant to be in “anyway cosmetic. It was meant to begin the legal procedure to put in place certain administrative measures.”
He said that the ministry did not manage to get parliamentary approval but “nevertheless went de facto, which means that in fact we are carrying out administrative measures to follow through with the strategic plan and the reform of the Guyana Prison Service.”
He added that there is a Strategic Management Department (SMD) that would be put in place as an oversight body to ensure that the plan is implemented. He said that the persons for this department have already been hired. He said that these persons will be part of a civilian oversight body, similar to the one that exists in the Guyana Police Force.
“I am saying that while we are waiting on all of that to happen, we are nevertheless carrying through with a number of administrative reforms,” he added, while identifying the Visiting Committee, the Centre Management Board and the Agricultural Board (to look at the question of self-sufficiency in food) as being among areas being examined.