Commissioners want counselling for Camp St inmates, officers

The three-man commission which will inquire into the deadly fire at the George-town Prison is pushing for counselling services to be made available to all those who have been affected by the tragedy.

In statement which was handed out during a press conference yesterday, the commissioners said that they visited the prison on Tuesday afternoon. They said that they are seeking that “arrangements be put in place for grief counselling for the affected inmates, officers and their families”.

According to the statement following the inaugural meeting on Tuesday the Commissioners agreed on an initial approach to their task and to the structure of its Report. They also agreed to share this information with the public, particularly people who believe they have information to share with the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) “in order both to inform the public and to re-assure them that the Commission is sensitive to a range of stakeholder expectations”.

Former judge Justice James Patterson (Chairman), human rights activist Merle Mendonca and former prisons director Dale Erskine took their oath of office on Monday. They have until March 28 to deliver a report with findings and recommendations.

The presidential inquiry was set up following a fire in the Capital block of the prison which last Thursday took the lives of 17 inmates and injured six others.

The statement said that the commissioners during the inquiry will attempt to answer three questions.

The first pertained to what happened that day and how it happened. According to the statement the focus of this first phase will be on the events leading up to the fires, the deaths and the actions taken to assist the victims.

Testimony of prisoners, officers involved in the event and possibly family members, it stated will be the main source of this information. “It is important this phase begin as soon as possible to avoid personal recollection being submerged into a common narrative”. Today the first set of witnesses (about five prisoners) will give their evidence. This hearing is to be held in the conference room at the Department of Public Service on Waterloo Street beginning at 10 am and ending at 2 pm. It is a public inquiry and as such anyone can come and view the proceedings.

The second part, the release said has to do with ascertaining what happened that should not have.

The release said that the focus of this phase is the level of prison preparedness, whether protocols and Standing Operating Procedures were followed and information which can be used to test the information gleaned from prisoners about the incident.

This phase, it was stated will require access to the prison director’s log, incidents books, complaints registers or other similar written evidence which will help establish a build-up of grievances or complaints made by prisoners in order to establish or identify patterns. These complaints will include use of force, transfers to different wings and segregation.

The third question has to do with ascertaining what did not happen but should have.

This area of focus, the statement said relates to the adequacy of the support services crucial to the Prison Service performing its duties adequately. These services, it was noted involve primarily the courts, Ministry of Health, Probation Services, Parole Board, Visiting Commit-tees and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The commissioners said in the statement that they recognize and will seek to ensure that the final report responds to “all reasonable expectations of the various stakeholders in this tragedy”.

It was stated that at this point it is recognized that the victims of the tragedy and their relatives need to be assured that they have “a full and truthful account of how and why the incident came about and the deaths occurred”.

The statement said that the commissioners recognised that all detainees in the Guyana prison system and their families need to be assured that measures are put in place to ensure this tragedy is not repeated.

In this regard members of the Guyana Prison Service need to be assured about health, safety and working conditions, the statement said adding that society at large needs similar assurances that prisons in Guyana are safe places and that the causes of the tragedy are being adequately addressed.

It stated that the commissioners recognise that the Government is seeking guidance to strengthen laws and policies and practices to ensure no repetition of this tragedy.

The statement said too that it must be recognised that all stakeholders need assurance that any evidence of criminal negligence or activity that may be discovered in the course of the CoI “will be directed to the appropriate agencies for further action”.

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