Fighting prison blaze through hole in wall would have been risky

Officer-in-Charge

-fire service took around eight minutes to arrive

Officer-in-Charge of the Georgetown Prison, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim yesterday said that using the adjoining dorm to fight the deadly fire in the Capital A Division, where 17 inmates died last month, would have required sending his officers into a “fatal funnel.”

Counsel for the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the deaths of the prisoners Excellence Dazzell yesterday asked Pilgrim, who was testifying at a public hearing, why a bucket brigade had not been set up to attend to the fire using the hole in the wall between the A and B divisions to grant access.

Pilgrim, who took the stand at the Department of Public Service building, stated that it would not have been a wise idea, given that the hole was situated halfway down the length of the dorm, and to have sent officers into an “unknown area” posed a high risk and he referred to the entryway to Capital B at the time as a “fatal funnel.”

Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim
Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim

“A doorway at that stage is not just a doorway, it is a fatal funnel, and it was given that name fatal funnel because a lot of things could happen to the ranks at that stage,” he said.

During his examination by Joint Services attorney Selwyn Pieters, Pilgrim said that when a fire was observed at Capital A, officers had reportedly attended to it using fire extinguishers through the vents. This was also stated in testimony by Senior Superintendent Gladwin Samuels, who said he saw officers on the catwalk with fire extinguishers when the fire was first sighted.

The heavy smoke eventually died down but officers who had been advancing to the Capital B division had been told to withdraw as the smoke was blowing in that direction. Shortly afterwards, he recalled seeing flames coming from the building and hearing screams. An instruction was then passed for the Capital B door to be re-opened. It was around this time that the fire service came.

Although fire drills had been conducted in the days preceding the March 3 tragedy, Pilgrim and Samuels both revealed to the Commission that the prison service was not equipped with any breathing apparatus or firefighting gear. He said a report had been made after the last drill session to have such provided.

Furthermore, the only fire service training the ranks had received was in the use of fire buckets and extinguishers. There is a pump belonging to the prison but that pump has been out of order for some time according to evidence submitted to the Commission. Members from the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) had related that they have been in possession of a Prison Service pump, which was given to them for servicing. One member had testified that on March 3, a battery was taken out of the operations room at GFS and put into that pump in case it was needed.

But all this aside, Pilgrim noted that the prison service does not play the lead role in such responses, but provides support to the entity that does. During fire drills, officers are mainly briefed on their specific roles were a fire to occur, as the GFS is contacted regardless of the magnitude of the fire.

He estimated that the fire service took approximately eight minutes to arrive on the scene. Pilgrim’s calculation was based on the fact that when the GFS did not arrive within the 3 to 5 minute-expected response time, he had passed an instruction for the siren in the prison compound to be sounded again, shortly after which they came.

Safety

Under cross-examination by attorney Mitra Devi Ali, Pilgrim denied that officers were “laid back” at the time the events were occurring, while explaining that the conduct of the officers on that day would have been in accordance with the Standard Operating Procedures. He also denied that the ranks, about 50 in number, had placed their own personal safety above that of the inmates, stating rather, that their safety was important firstly before they could ensure the safety of others.

Pilgrim said that the protests preceding the fatal fire, which took place on the evening of March 2, had come as a surprise to him, as he had spoken to the inmates of the Capital A Division earlier that evening. He related that he had listened to their grievances and had promised to meet with them the following morning to discuss their issues.

Although the inmates were visibly upset about the Joint Services search that had been conducted that day, having brought up the way in which their items were handled and the fact their belongings were seized, they took the opportunity to vent all their other concerns as well. These included the issue of lengthy pre-trial times and being detached from their families for extended periods.

The following morning, an operation by the Guyana Prison Service, to assess the damage from the fiery protests staged by prisoners the night before and to identify who may have initiated such, ended when the second assumed ringleader was taken from the compound.

Previously, prisoners who observed the events from their respective divisions testified to seeing inmates Steve Allicock and Collis Collison violently removed from the search line. From their perspective, those prisoners—Collison in particular, who they said was assaulted—were suddenly snatched during the course of what they otherwise considered a regular search.

What the testimonies of prisoners and prison officers alike have confirmed is that on March 3, the chaos among inmates began soon after Collison was removed by task force ranks. When Dazzell asked whether inmates would be informed of their extraction before it occurred, Pilgrim stated that this was entirely up to the discretion of the officer in charge at the time.

Overcrowding

A major concern at the city prison is that of overcrowding. For Superintendent Pilgrim, one of the main challenges this poses is segregation.

He stated yesterday that there are major constraints when it comes to separating prisoners, and for this reason, there exists a mixed classification system in the penitentiary. For the most part, however, convicted felons are separated from other inmates.

On March 3, while confusion reigned in the prison yard, one of Pilgrim’s tasks was to keep calm among the inmates. One of the challenges he faced then, was evacuating the divisions affected by the smoke flowing from the Capital A Division, while keeping in mind that there were constraints in mixing the prisoners, and considering that some prisoners may have personal disputes existing between one another.

Pilgrim’s testified yesterday in place of Senior Superintendent Samuels, who was scheduled to give in-camera evidence. It was related by the Commission Counsel at the start of yesterday’s proceedings that given the situation at the Camp Street Prison currently, the schedule has had to be shuffled to accommodate witnesses as they are available.

 

 

 

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