17 dead after prison protest fire

-inquiry ordered

Seventeen prisoners died and five others were injured after a fire was started during a protest at the Georgetown Prison yesterday morning, prompting the Public Security Minister to declare “a crisis” at the facility as government announced that an inquiry would be set up.

The fire was started by inmates housed in the Capital Offences section of the prison during renewed unrest, which occurred just before 11am. At the time, members of the Joint Services were seeking to get the prisoners out in wake of a protest on the night before, when several fires had been lit.

It is believed that the men either burned to death or died due to smoke inhalation.

There was pandemonium as relatives of inmates rushed to the prison looking for answers and dozens of plain clothes and armed ranks were brought out to maintain order and to control traffic in the areas surrounding the Camp Street facility.

At an emergency press conference at the Ministry of the Presidency yesterday afternoon, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan reported then that situation at the facility appeared to be under control.

He confirmed the death toll as 16 but the number rose to 17 by press time.

(From left) Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan; Officer in Charge of the Georgetown Prison, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim; Director of Prisons Carl Graham and Deputy Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels at the emergency press conference yesterday. (Zoisa Fraser photo)
(From left) Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan; Officer in Charge of the Georgetown Prison, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim; Director of Prisons Carl Graham and Deputy Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels at the emergency press conference yesterday. (Zoisa Fraser photo)

The names of the dead were not released as the Prison Service was seeking to contact their relatives. However, Stabroek News was reliably informed that the names of the dead are Sherwin Trotman, Kirk Clarke, Latchman Partap, Aaron Eastman, Randolph Marques, Rohan Teekaram, Hillary Amos, Rayon Paddy, Anthony Primo, Delroy Williams, Clifton Joseph, Jermain Otto, Shaka McKenzie, Andrew Philander, Chetram Dwarandat, Asraf Mohamed and Richard Hubbard.

All the bodies are at the Georgetown Hospital’s Morgue.

Stabroek News was told that of the five injured inmates, three were hospitalised at the Georgetown Hospital with severe burns. Their names were given as Marcellous Verbeke, Andel Forde and Ignatius Franz. It is believe that the other two inmates were returned to the prison.

Stabroek News was told that when Paddy was pulled out, he was clinging to life. He was so badly burned that his skin was dropping off.

As he was being lifted into an ambulance at the Camp Street entrance of the prison, onlookers screamed in disbelief. He appeared lifeless. He along with the others were brought out separately and placed into ambulances. Paddy was the last of six persons to be brought out. The other 16 died at the prison. After being pronounced dead, their bodies were wrapped, placed in a GDF ambulance and taken to the morgue.

The prisoners were among 68 being housed in the Capital A section of the Capital Block, which is located on the upper flat of a two-storey concrete building at the east of the prison compound. The top flat is divided into sections A and B. The block houses those on remand for murder as well as those who have been committed to stand trial for the offence.

Stabroek News was told that the prisoners were frustrated about the conditions they had been kept under and the length of time they were in detention without their matters being heard or completed. The inmates were also reported to have been provoked after two inmates from the section had been removed in handcuffs and shackles and taken to an unknown location.

A statement from the Ministry of the Presidency yesterday said President David Granger has ordered the immediate establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate the circumstances and causes of the tragedy to ensure that there is never a recurrence.

Although the prison was built to house over 600 inmates, the total population as of yesterday morning stood at 984.

Speaking at the press conference, Director of Prisons Carl Graham, after expressing condolences to the relatives of the dead and injured, said that everything possible was done to save the men from the fire. He said that the officers would have worked in the face of heat, missiles being thrown by the inmates and other adverse conditions to ensure that prisoners were taken out of the building.

Graham said there were no reports of prison officers being seriously injured. He said that some were suffering from trauma and a few from scalding that resulted from having to face the heat from the fire.

Unrest

Briefing the media at the emergency press conference, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim, the Officer in Charge (OC) of the Georgetown Prison, said that the unrest began on Wednesday night, hours after a raid was conducted.

He said the raid, which was part of a monthly mandatory Joint Services operation in which key areas were targeted and searched, uncovered illicit items, including 19 cellphone and narcotics, which were seized.

However, at around 9.23 pm, he was alerted to a disturbance within the Capital division, which he subsequently found in a “state of unrest.”

“Inmates would have been participating in lighting mattresses,” he said, while noting that a total of nine fires were lit that night by inmates of the Capital A section.

According to Pilgrim, the prisoners demanded that the seized illegal items be handed back while some complained about their prolonged period without hearings.

He said with the assistance of the Guyana Fire Service, the fires were extinguished. “The situation would have returned to some amount of normalcy after prompting the inmates to remain calm…,” he added.

Pilgrim said yesterday morning another Joint Services exercise was mounted to get the prisoners out of the building so as to effect repairs to beds and to conduct searches to retrieve any improvised weapons that they would have constructed from the beds that would have been broken.

He said that while the exercise began “quite smoothly,” it quickly got out of hand after the inmates were encouraged by some members of the general prison population housed in the other divisions. As a result, he said that the remaining inmates in Capital A refused to come out and the door of the section was barricaded and fires were lit again.

Pilgrim told reporters that the Immediate Action Drill—which guides the response in the event of a fire, riot or escapes—was initiated so as to bring the situation under control. He said that given the fact that there was a fire, the fire service responded to the scene to give the necessary support. “We would have brought the situation presently under some amount of control,” he reiterated.

Out of hand

However, a source told Stabroek News that the prisoners decided to set fire to every mattress in the cell and at some point a hole was created in the wall separating Capital A from Capital B so that they could escape once the fire was started.

This newspaper was told that wardens responded to the fire with their single hose and several buckets of sand. There is no sprinkler system in the jail, prison officials yesterday confirmed.

The section has two doors as well as a small vent in the washroom area and about four windows; however, all of these are heavily grilled and hardly allow for air to enter.

Stabroek News was told that the trapped inmates screamed and begged for help.

From the outside of the prison compound, the fire did not appear to be large although at intervals pockets of thick black smoke billowed from the roof. However, inside, this newspaper was told, the raging fire did not permit entry into the cell.

Women screamed and cried outside the prison’s gate. Many pushed forward each time the gate was opened. Many cursed as they pleaded for information about what was happening inside the prison walls.

At one point, ‘A’ Division Commander Clifton Hicken pleaded with the growing crowd to remain calm and assured that someone would come to speak with them shortly.

Shot fired

Prior to Stabroek News’ arrival at the scene, there were reports of inmates being beaten and a shot being fired.

However, when quizzed about this, Pilgrim denied that any beatings took place during the unrest but admitted that a warning shot had been fired. He said that this was in keeping with the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and laws of the land. “If a shot was fired it would have been according to SOP,” he said.

Asked why the prisoners were not removed from the section following the unrest on Wednesday night, Pilgrim said because the Capital division is for capital offenders and inmates with high profile status “we just can’t mix them in another division overnight.”

Pilgrim explained that the prison has unlock and lock down procedures during which no one will be relocated except in the case of a “very, very serious emergency.” He said too that on Wednesday night access to the building was also an issue given the fact that officials could not gain entry as the doors were blocked off.

Asked how cell phones were being smuggled into the prison, Pilgrim said they may be contained in parcels which are hurled over the fence from outside. He admitted that prisoners may not be satisfied with the two phone calls a week that they are permitted, since they would see communicating with relatives as important.

“I would not sit here and deny we don’t have some officers who are corrupt, that is a fact. However, what we do… we conduct daily searches such as the search we would have had for the prisons,” he said.

Relatives of prisoners yesterday complained about food not being given to inmates but Pilgrim said that given the emergency situation, the self-support arrangement had been suspended but not stopped indefinitely.

‘Crisis’

Meanwhile, Ramjattan told reporters “we do have a crisis on our hands” at the prison and spoke of upping the establishment’s strength, getting the prison facility at Mazaruni ready to accommodate the excesses at the other prisons and working to having criminal matters heard more expeditiously in the court.

The minister, who is arguably facing his toughest challenge since taking up his portfolio last May, called the lengthy delay of trials “a bugbear” as he noted that it creates tremendous frustration and vexation in prisoners, especially from Capital A. This, he said, will be looked at in conjunction with the judiciary.

He said that overcrowding has also been caused by persons being unable to pay their bail and that it would be an issue that will be looked at.

Ramjattan made mention of not remanding young first time offenders as a possible idea. “That leads to this overpopulation,” he said.

There have been previous calls for a new jail to be built outside of the city but according to the Minister it is not going to happen in the near future given the cost.

President of the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) Mike McCormack, in an invited comment, said that what has transpired has come as a shock to everyone. He told Stabroek News that there are so many issues which could have contributed to what had transpired. He noted that prisoners are often treated unfairly as they are regarded as the “garbage of society” and hence there is no care about the conditions under which they live.

McCormack, who has long been talking about the deplorable conditions under which prisoners are kept, said that the fire was a protest and opined that it was not intended to escalate to the stage it eventually reached. He said that it showed the prisoners’ level of desperation.

He said that GHRA will want to assess what had happened first before an approach is made to those in authority to address some of the long-standing problems facing prisoners.

According to the Ministry of the Presidency statement, President Granger is deeply saddened at the loss of life and assures the family members of the deceased and the injured that everything will be done to ensure that there is a full and complete investigation.

It added that Granger, at an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee yesterday afternoon, instructed Ramjattan to set up the three-member CoI, which will not only investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths, but will also make recommendations to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents.

The names of the members of this Commission are expected to be made public today.

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