New Amsterdam prison scandal

Endless column inches in the independent newspapers have been devoted to the failings of the Guyana Police Force, but the Guyana Prison Service has come under less scrutiny. The prisons, of course, by their very nature are largely closed to public view, and it is only when there is a spectacular breakout such as that of February 23, 2002, or a particularly dangerous or notorious prisoner makes good his escape that there is some exposure of what is happening in the country’s jails.

On May 23, however, there was a horrendous attack on four prisoners in the New Amsterdam prison, carried out by five other inmates. ‘Jukkers,’ as they are called here, are made by prisoners all over the world from any utensils they can get their hands on inside their place of incarceration, but this case is different. In this instance the attackers threw acid on their victims and chopped them with cutlasses, the acid and the weapons having been brought into the New Amsterdam facility from outside. All four men are still hospitalised; two of them were so badly injured they had to be transferred to the Georgetown Public Hospital. This is no ordinary act of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and raises serious questions about the administration of this particular institution, and by extension, possibly, all the jails in the country.

It is difficult to conceive how a container of acid and cutlasses, of all things, could find their way inside the prison without the co-operation of one or more prison warders. The amount of acid employed was not minuscule, while cutlasses are unwieldy items which could not be easily smuggled in by relatives or friends visiting. In our report last Sunday a source close to the New Amsterdam prison told this newspaper that there are warders who will bring in anything for a price, and that a cutlass is $5,000 and a cellphone, $3,000.

Unbelievable as it may sound, that was not, by any means, the worst of the allegations to surface in respect of this matter. In our Thursday edition we reported Ms Donna Liddle, mother of the most seriously injured man, Kwame Bhagwandin, as alleging that the attackers were involved in some kind of drug business with the prison officers, and that her son was targeted because he was seen as a “whistleblower.” She went on to claim that two weeks before the attack he had seen something illegal taking place which he had brought to the attention of a senior officer, and that he and the other three had witnessed when a warder had carried in acid, and had complained to the warders as well as subsequently giving a statement in writing. Our Sunday source, supplying a somewhat different version, had told this newspaper that the leader of the attackers, a man who goes by the soubriquet of ‘Shoulder,’ had a “business problem” with Bhagwandin and Clarence Williams, who is also currently in the GPH.

Whatever the real truth of the reasons behind the attack, the circumstances are deeply disquieting. We reported on Sunday that the leader of the gang had informed a warder that he wanted a bottle of water, and the latter opened the cell door in order to fulfil this request. When the warder’s back was turned, the prisoner choked him from behind until he was unconscious, and grabbed the master key which he used to open some of the cells nearby. He and his newly freed accomplices then strapped themselves up with cloth, picked up the container of acid and armed themselves with the cutlasses. They began with Bhagwandin whose cell is on the ground floor, and after leaving him for dead, they then proceeded upstairs where they attacked the other three inmates.

As said above, the first question which the prison authorities have to explain is the obvious one of how acid and cutlasses could be brought into a prison at all, and who the warders were who were involved – if they were; while the second one relates to where these items were stored between the time they came into the facility and the time they were used. Clearly, ‘Shoulder’ and his associates had easy access to them.

The answer, according to Ms Liddle’s version of events, is in ‘Shoulder’s’ cell; she alleges that after Bhagwandin had complained to the warders about the acid being brought into the jail, the cells were searched by a warder on the very day of the incident – all except, it seems, that of ‘Shoulder’ himself. If the authorities are going to maintain that no search was carried out on the day of the attack, thereby avoiding the allegation that ‘Shoulder’s’ cell was bypassed, it still does not help them very much. The question of whether the weapons were in ‘Shoulder’s’ cell or not remains; and if they were not there, then where exactly were they and how was it possible that warders would not know about them?

Which brings us to the question of what the prison warders knew and when, and how high up the hierarchy this information was available. If a written statement about the acid coming into the prison was indeed given by Bhagwandin, that should be on record, although if this particular jail is anything like as out of control as these stories might seem to suggest, that particular piece of paper may have done a disappearing act by now. Similarly, a complicit warder or warders is unlikely to want to admit that complaints were made in any form at all.

And there is another critical question the prison authorities have to answer. Both the source who spoke to this newspaper for the Sunday report, and Ms Liddle on behalf of her son concurred that prison officers made no attempt to help the victims during the attack. The latter quoted Bhagwandin as telling her: “…at the time nobody blow a whistle or sound any alarm; nobody call for police, only until after an hour the incident occur. Nobody didn’t even fire a shot in the air to scare the assaulters. Nobody did anything.” The Sunday source said that it was the screaming of the wounded prisoners which alerted the warders, and although armed, they chose to secure themselves and call for police backup. This source also agreed that almost an hour elapsed between ‘Shoulder’ overpowering the guard and the police arriving.

So will the authorities tell us, are the warders issued with firearms, or were some of them armed? If not, did they not at least have access to firearms for emergency purposes? Why did they not try to stop the attack? Why did they stay back and wait for the police to deal with the situation? Why did they not make use of their weapons – at least to fire in the air? Why was no alarm sounded? And exactly at what point did they call the police? Was there a delay because the police did not come immediately, or because the senior official at the prison did not call out the police immediately – or a combination of both?

All of this is quite apart from the seeming lack of security protocols when opening the cell door of a dangerous inmate – unless, of course, the particular warder involved was complicit.

Whatever the exact truth of what has happened, it is clear that there is something seriously wrong at the New Amsterdam prison. It is known, of course, that the Prison Service is seriously under strength, and that it is hard to recruit male officers in particular to do what after all, is a not very pleasant job. Add to that the fact that the salaries are extremely unattractive, and the temptation to succumb to bribery and corruption becomes explicable. While it is explicable, it is not excusable, of course, and one can only hope that the police investigation currently underway uncovers not just the sequence of events and the culpability of individuals who had a direct or indirect role, but the connection one or more prison officers may have had to rackets in the jail.

As for the prison service, it needs to look carefully at all its jails, and in the case of New Amsterdam, overhaul it completely.


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