After the breakout of four remand prisoners from the Georgetown Magistrate’s Court lockups on Monday, one can only wonder which official it was who approved the security features of the building. It is not as if some of them are not on public display, like the apology for a back fence, a photograph of which was shown on the front page of our Thursday edition and which would not have proved much of a challenge for a child to negotiate, let alone four desperate men set on making good their escape. In fact, no security expertise is required to recognize the unsuitability of some of the security features, so called, described in our reports; they are simply evidence of a lack of common sense.
In terms of causal factors, of course, there was also the matter of the conduct of the police; had they been at their posts, the men would probably not have been able to abscond with such ease no matter what the flaws in the construction of the lockups. However, once those structural weaknesses existed, it might only have been a matter of time before some prisoner was afforded the opportunity to try and take advantage of them.
The men escaped through a ventilation window in the holding area whose horizontal thin bars, we reported, had been weakened over time by prisoners pulling on them with their shirts. At the minimum it might seem to suggest that they had not been well cemented into the concrete, and possibly that they were not sufficiently sturdy for the task in any case. Outside the metal bars, for some inexplicable reason, there was mesh, rather than the grillwork found on other windows in the building, something which an ordinary member of the public let alone a security consultant would have thought more appropriate for the purpose.
After they had negotiated the ventilation window, the escapees had only to clamber over the fence mentioned above, which was constructed of chain link surmounted by three strands of common-or-garden barbed wire – not even razor wire. This took them into a bush-filled alleyway, which would have provided them with cover. It was a rainy day, so there were not many people about, but even in dry weather the building at the back accommodating a few lawyers’ offices does not see much traffic in any case.
Usually, our reporter was told, two policemen would sit on a table at the back of the lockups, but they were not there on the rainy day in question, presumably because the Guyana Police Force does not provide its officers with raincoats unless they are on traffic duty, and they had no form of shelter. Apart from the fact that no one would believe we live in a tropical country boasting two rainy seasons a year, how on earth can the authorities be so casual about security arrangements behind the lockups? Two officers sitting on a table?
It must also be said that the authorities should not allow an alleyway behind the court to become choked with bush; that should be kept clear at all times, at least for security reasons, if no other.
In our Wednesday edition we reported a security source as saying that the design of the lockups is riddled with defects, and he mused over whether the police had been invited to have any input. He described the lockups as being located in a blind spot, when for security reasons one ought to be able to see into every corner. “Had the police been able to see in, they would have spotted these men going through the window,” we quoted him as saying. He also observed that two lockups should have been built − one for those charged with serious offences and the other for those accused of minor ones. In terms of the back of the building, his suggestion was that rather than have the guard hut in its present unsuitable location, it should have been placed at the back of the northern side of the compound so the guard would have a view of the rear. It might be added that this might also solve the ‘wet policemen’ problem.
It should be mentioned in passing that it is not just security issues which have been accorded scant attention; the sewerage system malfunctions when it rains, and some months ago we published photographs of lawyers and others negotiating their way through the effluent. In any court system which takes itself seriously this would be a disgrace, but in the case of a court which has undergone a major renovation it is absolutely unacceptable. Why is nothing being done about it? Why do the authorities tolerate a health hazard of this order in a public space? What is the matter with those who make the decisions on our behalf?
What has the public astonished is that the Georgetown Magistrate’s Court was under refurbishment for two years, an exercise which cost many millions of dollars. How come, everyone wants to know, that after all that money was expended the security features of the building are so unfit for purpose? The answer is, according to a source at the court, that no rehabilitation of the lockups area was done; they just added on a few courts and installed air conditioning.
In fact the work was completed under the auspices of the Ministry of Legal Affairs’ Modernisa-tion of the Justice Administration Project, funded by loans from the IDB, and involved among other things, the addition of six courts to the present complement. In September last year the new courts were inspected by Junior Minister of Finance Juan Edghill, in company with the acting Registrar, the Project Co-ordinator and the Procurement Manager of the project. One is forced to conclude that their visit occurred on a dry day when there was no overflow from subterranean quarters, in addition to which they undertook only a perfunctory inspection of the lockups.
Now, additional courts would suggest that more prisoners will be brought to court than was the case previously. Furthermore, it doesn’t require a security expert to advise that the likelihood of escape attempts increases when prisoners are outside the jail, either being brought to or held in court (among other possibilities such as hospitalization). Did it not occur to anyone involved in the project that some input from the police and those with security expertise was required in the circumstances?
In our Wednesday edition we reported the view held by some that the escape was pre-arranged. This was denied by two of the escapees who appeared in court that day, but one source said they saw when one of the prisoners, Vickram Persaud – who was later killed by the police at Fort Wellington – enter a car which then sped off. While this is suggestive of something planned, whether it involved him alone, or included one or more of the others, may never be known for certain. The point is that whatever the case on this occasion, the possibility always exists for something to be planned, and if it is planned, the further possibility exists that the conspiracy will involve the escapee being armed.
The inhabitants of Georgetown and the lower East Coast have good reason to take this kind of possible scenario seriously; after all, it was on February 23, 2002 that something similar happened in the Camp Street prison itself, where even at that time – prima facie – physical security was better than in the current Magistrate’s Court lockups. It is not something which anyone would ever want to see repeated.
This is surely a lesson for the authorities, and it is now incumbent on the Ministry of Legal Affairs to instruct those in charge of the project to solicit the recommendations of recognized security experts as well as the police about what should be done to secure the lockups – at least in the immediate term. The Police Commissioner, of course, will have to undertake his own investigation into the conduct of his officers last Monday.