Ministers meet inmates to defuse jail protest

-more phone calls, better meals promised

Minister Harmon greets one of the prisoners who was present at the meeting yesterday morning. (Ministry of the Presidency photo)

A standoff at the Georgetown Prison was yesterday defused after Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon met with protesting inmates to address their grievances and avert an escalation.

A prisoner sits in an ambulance waiting to be transported to the hospital after he was hit in his eyes with pellets. (Photo by Keno George)
A prisoner sits in an ambulance waiting to be transported to the hospital after he was hit in his eyes with pellets. (Photo by Keno George)

One day after 17 inmates perished in a fire that was set during a protest, Ramjattan identified the members of the Commission of Inquiry that will investigate their deaths and the causes. Hours after meeting with inmates, he also announced that Deputy Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels had been sent on leave in the wake of complaints received. He announced too that prisoners would be allowed an extra telephone call each week and the quality of meals served at the facility would also be addressed. A meeting is also planned with acting Chancellor Carl Singh to address complaints about the sloth of the judiciary that prisoners blame for their lengthy incarceration.

Earlier in the day, members of the Joint services were forced to use tear gas and fired pellets to get the prisoners out of the Capital A building, where a fire was lit around 7am. The fire was quickly extinguished. A fire at the building caused the fatalities on the previous day.

The prisoners yesterday also kicked out an already weakened wall located at the southern side of the building. Some prisoners were seen on the roof of a building in the compound holding various implements.

Seven prisoners were subsequently rushed to the Georgetown Public Hospital (GPH) for injuries they sustained. Two of them were said to be in critical condition. Five prison officers were also taken to the hospital for treatment for inhalation of tear gas.

During a press conference held yesterday afternoon at the Public Security Ministry, Officer-in-Charge of the prison Kelvin Pilgrim explained that yesterday’s unrest started with some voicing minor grievances and concerns, which attracted support from various prison divisions.

However, he noted that due to the presence of the Joint Services in the prison compound, the ranks were able to restore some degree of control, notwithstanding the structural damages that sections of the building would have experienced as a result of the incident.

Pilgrim added that the meeting with the ministers served to pacify the irate inmates and he reported that a level of normalcy was prevailing.

‘We need justice’

While they were being escorted to the Georgetown Prison Officers Sports Club, where they met with Harmon and Ramjattan, the prisoners said they wanted justice.

“All this is because of justice. We in here long without no fair trial or justice,” one said.

“We need justice. Is not just so they will charge you and put you in here and lef you,” another added.

Among those who met with the ministers were inmates drawn from the affected areas, as well as other inmates from the general population who would have witnessed what would have transpired. Additionally, those who would have met with the ministers were returned to their respective divisions in the prison and were tasked with communicating the issues raised during the meeting along with the response that were given by the ministers.

Among the concerns raised by the inmates were the sloth of the judicial system, particularly the extended committal periods and long periods spent on remand before their cases are called, and the poor conditions of the prison facilities they are made to use on a daily basis.

“We are quite aware of our judicial system and the persons in there are quite aware also, and as such they would have clearly voiced their concerns as to their feelings towards their imprisonment. Some would have touched on wrongful imprisonment, which would have also added to them feeling the way they would have expressed themselves,” Pilgrim explained.

Ramjattan earlier told reporters that the group of prisoners had “quite a lot of grievances” due to the conditions of the prison, their treatment by wardens and their lengthy detentions without trial. He said some also voiced complaints about judges and magistrates.

He added that the matters raised by the prisoners that could be dealt with administratively would be addressed forthwith. Towards this end, Ramjattan subsequently said telephone calls will now be extended to three per week instead of two for prisoners and this will be changed to as much as five a week once additional phone lines are installed in a few weeks. The seizure of cellphones during a raid on Wednesday was among the inciting incidents for Thursday’s protest, during which inmates set fire to their mattresses.

With regard to the complaints about long periods of time prisoners are on remand and delayed trials, Harmon informed that he and Ramjattan had raised the matter with Justice Singh, who has indicated his willingness to meet next week to discuss it.

“So what we can say to the inmates is that their concerns with respect to long period of incarceration on remand… will be addressed very swiftly by the judiciary and the administration,” Harmon said.

Ramjattan also said that he has indicated to the prison administration that meals must be on time and in accordance with the Standing Orders and be up to the standards outlined.

Meeting them

Asked for his feelings on whether government’s meeting with the prisoners could be seen as a sign of weakness, Ramjattan responded in the negative. “Absolutely not. It’s meeting them to meet their demands and I feel that it is a useful thing talking to them and hearing their versions too, at our level, because at times indeed they could be speaking to the prison authorities and the prison authorities listening to them but not acting. We need, at our level, sometimes to meet them and talk to them and it is very useful information we got this morning and they seem to be all credible in what they are saying,” he said.

Harmon also stated that the exchange with the prisoners was useful. “The important thing is that they have given us a commitment that when they get back into the prison that they will speak to the other prisoners to ensure that there is no other escalations,” he said, before expressing confidence that the prisoners will stick to their word.

“So, I think we have sort of a gentleman’s agreement on both sides. We are going to try to keep our end of the bargain and they are going to keep theirs,” he said. “We feel very confident that what has happened will aid in the security arrangements in the prison… we will do all that we can as a government to ensure that the prisoners live and work in a humane conditions that should make their lives a little comfortable,” he added, while noting that prison is not a five-star hotel but the government must assure certain minimum standards.

Repairs

Meanwhile, Pilgrim said repairs on the damaged areas would have already taken effect, followed by clearing of debris, which is being undertaken with the assistance of the inmates. He further noted that additional assistance has been offered by the Ministry of Public Infrastructure and the Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation, with the latter assisting with welding works.

Also offering assistance by acting as liaison between the families of the dead inmates and the prison is the Ministry of Social Protection. Pilgrim explained that the Ministry of Social Protection will serve as guidance representatives to the families by offering the necessary assistance in getting through the tragedy.

“I want to say to the families and relatives of the victims: you are to make contact with the prison or reps from Social Protection. They are there to pilot you in the right direction as it relates to the investigation, rending support to the families and any other assistance that would be needed during this period,” he urged.

He also stressed the important role of the Ministry in helping to balance what he says will be reported by some media houses, since the intervention of the Ministry would allow the families an opportunity to have firsthand information. “It is in their best interest to try to make contact with prison on by extension Social Protection,” he stressed.

Pilgrim also explained that the families of the deceased would be contacted by the police force as it relates to the release of the bodies for burial. He noted that once the bodies are cleared for burial, a request would be made to have the bodies released. However, if the families cannot handle the burial arrangements, he said the prison has provisions in place to offer assistance in that area. Once again, the Ministry of Social Protection will be aiding relatives by offering guidance to relatives in taking the necessary steps to secure this form of assistance.

Plans to engage in a reshuffle within the prison along with the temporary relocation of younger offenders were also highlighted as current activities being undertaken. Pilgrim explained that provisions have been made to temporarily relocate 47 of the prison’s younger offenders to the Timehri Prison until repairs are completed; those prisoners, he said, would be given the opportunity today to call to their families to assure them of their present conditions.

And in the interest of the safety of residents who live in the immediate environs of the prison, Pilgrim noted that operations being carried out are being done by the Joint Services, with the presence of members of Guyana Defence Force (GDF) to complement that of the Guyana Police Force, while the Guyana Fire Service will also be on standby.

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