The Joint Services deployment to the Camp Street Prison continued yesterday amidst reports of inmates still roaming the facility unsupervised, while residents living nearby remained on edge.
Following reports of a possible revolt, the streets bordering the facility were blocked off and armed members of the Joint Services were present when Stabroek News visited the area yesterday. The barricades along John, Bent Street, Camp and Durban streets were in place and groups of mainly soldiers were seen. At the Bent Street side of the prison, prisoners were standing at the windows, from which personal effects, including washed sheets and towels, were hanging.
A resident, who did not want to be named, expressed shock that the prisoners were being allowed to roam free within the walls of the prison and engage in prohibited activities.
Over the past few days, there have been reports of prisoners walking around the compound unsupervised, with sharp implements in their possession, and freely smoking marijuana. They have also been reported to be more aggressive to prison officers, who are said to be fearful.
Stabroek News made numerous attempts yesterday to reach Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan but was unsuccessful. When contacted, the Officer-in-Charge of the Prison Kevin Pilgrim said that he was not authorised to speak on the issue and referred this newspaper to the Director of Prisons Carl Graham. Graham could not be reached.
At press time last evening, there were no reports of unrest at the prison and this newspaper was informed that while the prisoners roamed the compound during the day, they would return to their cells at nightfall.
The resident, who has been living in the area just over ten years, said that over the past few days the situation appeared to be normal but she was alerted to trouble when she noticed soldiers last Thursday.
As a result of the 13 of the 15 prison wardens on the roster for the day shift reporting sick last Thursday, President David Granger ordered that the outer cordons of the prison be extended to include D’urban, John and Bent Streets, which will be blocked off to the public except for persons residing within those areas, as is done on Camp Street.
He also directed the Guyana Police Force to aid prison officers in manning the Camp Street facility and the Guyana Defence Force to help in guarding the outer cordons of its precincts.
The Ministry of Presidency, in a statement on the situation, noted that it was reported to the National Security Committee that inmates had become bolder and aggressive towards prison officers since the fatal March 3 fire at the prison, in which 17 inmates died. It was stated that this is suspected to be the reason behind the sick leaves being submitted.
The committee was also informed that there has been a rise in cases of marijuana being thrown over the prison fences and that wardens were afraid of being harmed by prisoners.
Sources say that prison wardens took a collective decision to go on sick leave after one of their colleagues was hit on the head with a brick thrown by an inmate last Monday. Many have vowed that they will not return to the penitentiary until the conditions have improved.
A source close to the wardens told Stabroek News yesterday that after the incident, they knew that it was time for them to take drastic action.
According to the source, the wardens are very upset that the government took a decision to meet with prisoners after the prison fire.
Stabroek News was told that the wardens feel betrayed not only by government but by the senior members of the prison administration, who they say have made no efforts to stand up for them. It was pointed out that warden’s work in a horrible environment.
It is known that there is a shortage of wardens, particularly at the Camp Street facility.
This newspaper was told last Friday that prisoners managing to get an audience with government officials have left prisoners feeling empowered and they are being disrespectful to the wardens in every possible way.
“The system is broken… the wardens have been left in the cold. The inmates have no regards for prison wardens. They are fearful but they are still going to work… they hope people, at some point, could understand the complex nature of their job,” a source told this newspaper.
When word came that prisoners were misbehaving, it is unclear why the SWAT unit was not called in to provide assistance. In March, five prison officers were also sent to the US to partake in a mock prison riot exercise. It is unclear whether these two groupings have been put on standby.
Sources close to the prison authority told this newspaper last evening that though there is still “a free for all,” the wardens are not getting in the prisoners’ way.
The source said that the prisoners are moving around the prison a lot because of the shortage of wardens. It was pointed out, however, that at nights they return to their cells, which are locked until morning. “Wardens working the location but due to tension they allowing people [to roam free],” the source said.
Meanwhile, prisoner Carl Browne took his Facebook account to deny that there has been a takeover of the prison. Although the use of cell phones is prohibited, he continues to be an active member of the social media site.
In a post uploaded last Friday night, he said that the only abnormal thing happening in the prison is the presence of condemned prisoners out in the yard.
“I also think they have a right to rebel to get sunlight on their body. It is inhumane to have prisoners living in Guyana Prison and can’t get sunlight daily. Some of [t]hese condemn prisoners are there for as long as 10 years awaiting Appeal Court but can’t get sunlight unless the go to the hospital or get a visit,” he said.
“This Prison is at peace and the people in this area are claiming that they have never heard this prison sounding so peaceful,” he added.
Living in fear
According to the resident, the presence of the Joint Services ranks is distressing to her.
She said that she tries to go about her daily routine forgetting that the prison exists as thinking of it might only depress her. “I just blank that out,” she stressed before adding that she was against the government meeting to negotiate with prisoners in wake of the unrest and the deaths last month.
She was making reference to a meeting between a delegation of prisoners and Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon on the day after the fire. The fire had been set by the prisoners in the Capital Section allegedly in protest over various issues. A Commission of Inquiry (CoI) is presently being conducted into the circumstances of the fire.
Several residents said that the prison is also affecting businesses in the area. Stabroek News was told that female customers, in particular, were not inclined to walk along Bent Street since prisoners frequently harass them.
The residents who spoke with this newspaper were all in favour of the prison being relocated.
One resident said the relocation should have been done years ago, while pointing out that the area has become more populated since the prison was built. While acknowledging that it would be a costly venture, he said that government should just make a start and at some point the project will be completed.
He too said that the reports emanating from the prison are frightening.
Residents also questioned why the government has not met with them to discuss their concerns about the prison.
This newspaper was told that residents would shut their windows so that the prisoners cannot see into their apartments and to prevent their comments from reach them.
One resident said she is living in constant fear. She explained that although the soldiers are around, anything can happen.
Stabroek News was also told of instances where persons on motorcycles would pass and fling bags over the prison fence. “You would see two young men coming on a motorcycle in broad daylight and they would throw a bag over the fence. I want to know who does be collecting those bags?” another resident, who also asked not to be named, questioned.
It is suspected that this is one of the means used to smuggle marijuana into the prison.
According to the resident, the situation at the prison is worrying and action ought to be taken now before it becomes uncontrollable.
The opposition PPP/C, in a statement released yesterday, expressed concern “over the dangerous state of affairs” at the prison and it blamed the government and Ramjattan.
“It is obvious that the posture adopted by the Granger Administration as well as information emanating from the Commission of Inquiry have on the one-hand emboldened the prisoners and, on the other brought about low morale among prison officers,” it said.
The statement added that the senior management of the Georgetown Prison and other ranks feel a sense of “abandonment’ by the Granger administration, which it said has adopted a posture viewed by prisoners as favourable to them.
“The Granger Administration must take full responsibility for this dangerous situation brought about by unhelpful decisions they have adopted and which have resulted in the unstable and life-threatening situation that currently obtains at the Georgetown Prison,” it further said.
The party called on the Granger administration to “cease immediately its pretenses at being experts and having all the answers for Public Safety and National Security” and immediately convene the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on the Security Sector.