Director of Prisons Carl Graham yesterday said fire prevention inspections are done regularly at the Camp Street jail but he was unable to confirm if any were done for the year.
Graham yesterday took the witness stand once more before the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the fatal prison fire, which claimed the lives of 17 inmates, and he was subject to questioning about the general operations of the prison.
When Commission Counsel Excellence Dazzell asked how often fire prevention inspections are done at the prison, Graham said at regular intervals but was unable to say if any were done for the year. He also communicated that those reports are sent to the Ministry of Public Security, which would then advise the Prison Service on the recommendations.
The Commission Counsel, however, showed him fire prevention reports dated up to 2012 from the Guyana Fire Service and addressed to the Director of Prisons. Graham, who was instated in October, 2015, could not comment on this, but maintained that those reports—to his knowledge—are directed to the ministry. He was also unable to speak on any recommendations for fire prevention at the Georgetown Prison, which were issued by the Guyana Fire Service.
Dazzell put it to Graham that one of the recommendations listed in the 2012 report related to the prison fire pump, which was not in working condition at that time.
The testimonies of prison and fire service officers who appeared before the commission so far have revealed that on March 3 there was no working pump at the prison. Graham stated that in 2012 there was no fire pump but there was a substitute being used.
Asked whether he has been a part of any fire drills from October, 2015 until now, Graham said he was not sure. He had stated that a pump and hoses were used during the fire drills done on the preceding the tragedy but it was later put to him by Commission Counsel that neither were used. The testimonies of prison officials had claimed that the only fire training the ranks received were using fire buckets and extinguishers.
Graham did assure the panel that the pigeon holes through which fire hoses are run are properly maintained, having stated that he has witnessed it for himself. He said too that the exit doors in the dormitories are opened when the dorms are vacant but could not say if this information would be placed in the search report.
In evidence submitted prior, the inquiry heard that an attempt to open the side door of the Capital A Division had failed. Deputy Prisons Director Gladwin Samuels, in his testimony, had said he was later informed that the door appeared to have been tampered with.
Meanwhile, a Duty Officer at the Georgetown Prison yesterday questioned the protections in place for prison officials who go beyond the call of duty and operate within the law’s confines but seem to suffer for their actions.
Oldfield Romelus’ concern is the direct result of the action taken with regard to Samuels, who was asked to proceed on leave following the events on March 3, when 17 inmates died in a fire at the prison.
Samuels was sent on leave following allegations made against him by inmates.
“I’m questioning the laws right now in my mind. How will it protect me as I go forward in the prison service? If I’m being placed in a position like Mr Samuels and I have to make the decisions that Mr Samuels made, am I going to—and I say suffer, because I know he’s suffering,” he stated yesterday while testifying before the CoI.
The witness related that on March 3, the morning following a protest by the inmates of the Capital A Division, where fires were lit on the landing outside their dormitory, the day began as per normal with the regular “feed up” exercise. The only difference, however, was that on that morning, every other division was fed except for Capital A. Inmates of Capital A, who have appeared before the tribunal, had expressed that this was a peculiar occurrence but Romelus yesterday explained that this was done for security reasons.
He stated that given the threats leveled by inmates toward officers the night before, precautionary measures were taken for the safety of the ranks and additional prison officers from other locations were called in.
According to Romelus’ evidence, ranks were placed in two lines on the tarmac, and when the inmates descended from their dorm, they were to be searched and then escorted to the dining hall to receive their morning meals. Additionally, there was an exercise in place for key prisoners to be removed and taken to the reception area.
To Romelus’ recollection and as previous evidence has indicated, it was when inmate Collis Collison was extracted, that “all hell broke loose.” When the remaining inmates of the Capital A division refused to come out, he said Officer-in-Charge of the Prison Kevin Pilgrim ordered that they extract the inmates from the Capital B Division and escort them to the recreational cage. Under cross-examination by the Counsel to the Commission, he admitted he did not know the reason Pilgrim ordered the evacuation of the Capital B Division.
As the events on that fatal day unfolded, he patrolled the prison, urging the prison officers who were manning the inner perimeter not to be afraid. He described the experience as frightening, while explaining that prisoners were banging on the walls, but he reminded the ranks that while they were banging they were not out of their cells.
At that time, four officers were manning the perimeter, although it was a 16-man operation. There were 1,014 inmates at the prison on that day.
When asked by Selwyn Pieters, attorney for the Joint Services, how the events on that day have affected him personally and in his duties, Romelus stated that he is no longer able to assure his ranks that they are safe within the law regardless of the constraints working against them. “I am one of the duty officers that normally would assure the ranks on the parade before we get into the yard that even though we are grossly understaffed, we have the laws on our side. And more often than not, people respect laws… the events on March 3rd, in my estimation, the officers at Georgetown prison…operated within the framework and guidelines of the laws. We even went beyond what we were asked to do in trying to rescue those inmates that were trapped in the blaze. Our most senior officer on the day was sent on leave. I can tell you how that affects me… it affects me in the way that I cannot assure these ranks—I cannot guarantee them anymore that the law is on our side. I can tell them, but they were there. They see and know what happened,” he said.