Two other prison officers yesterday testified before the Commission of Inquiry into the prison unrest, where they both made claims of alerting the Operations Room staff to the existence of a fire at the prison.
Superintendent of Prisons Nicklon Elliot, who was named several times in witness testimonies as the person who made contact with the prison’s Operations Room to inform them there was a fire at the Capital A division, was called first to lead evidence yesterday.
Elliot reported for duty on the morning of March 3, and being second in charge of the prison at that time, he was tasked with overlooking the day-to-day operations of the institution. He said at about 08:30 hrs, prison ranks, including those who had been deployed from other locations, were briefed by the Director of Prisons and the Officer in Charge Kevin Pilgrim about the day’s operations, which would constitute the evacuation of the Capital A Division and an assessment of the building.
Elliot testified that after the officers initiated the evacuation process for the search to commence, he left and proceeded to the Administrative Building. It was while looking out a window that he saw thick, black smoke coming from the New Capital building and contacted the supervisor in the Operations Room to enquire as to what was happening. Elliot said he was informed by the officer that smoke was coming from the Capital A Division and he told her to sound the siren. Elliot claimed he saw this fire around 09:25 hrs, but other testimonies indicate that the fire occurred after 11:00 hrs. Elliot related that this was the first time he heard the siren go off, and while he later learned there was a fire in Capital B, the one in Capital A was the only fire he had knowledge of at the time. He also stated that he would be unable to say if the Operations Room (ops room) staff were informed of the fire before he contacted them.
Previous reports had indicated that the ops room was contacted at the sighting of the first fire, which was put out with the use of extinguishers and that the siren had been sounded soon after.
The evidence of Officer in Charge of the Prison Kevin Pilgrim, had indicated that when he went to make a report to the ops room, he was informed that Elliot had already done so.
Pilgrim related that after that first fire was extinguished and the other fire started in Capital A, he went to the office himself and instructed the officer to sound the siren. He also asked if a report had been made to the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) and was told yes.
Prison Officer Esther Charles said that she made contact with Elliot via her radio set on her way back to the ops room after she observed the fire, but mentioned too that the information she was receiving over the radio was confusing as several persons were speaking on the line.
Elliot was asked by Commission Counsel Excellence Dazzell if the inmates of Capital A would be involved in fire drills carried out at the prison. He said while they would not take part, they would be briefed on what to do in the event of a fire by either the orderly or the duty officer. He related that what the inmates should be told in these instances, is to raise an alarm if they see fire or smoke so they can be evacuated from the division.
In response to Commissioner Dale Erskine’s enquiry as to whether a review of the Standard Operating Procedures is needed, Elliot responded in the affirmative, noting that a revision is needed to see what went wrong and what could be corrected.
Under cross-examination by attorney Melvin Duke, Elliot said that with more ranks and additional resources the prison may have been able to better deal with the situation. Duke asked whether anyone had attempted to engage with the prisoners at any time to negotiate with them and Elliot stated that while he was unsure of this being done on March 3, on the evening of March 2, Pilgrim had spoken with the inmates.
Also testifying yesterday was June Lewis-Charles, Principal Officer 1 at the Georgetown Prison. Lewis-Charles said that on the morning of the tragedy she took up her post outside the Chief Office. She said that about 10:52 hrs, Pilgrim went into the prison yard and instructed the officers to open the door to the Capital A division for the search to begin.
Observing the events from about 30 feet away, she said the inmates were exiting in fives and certain prisoners were removed from the line. She recalled prisoner Shaka McKenzie becoming very aggressive and cursing and shouting threats at prison officers, to the effect, “We gon kill ayuh… Y’all wan kill people in here!”
She said the prisoners pulled in the door and began pelting at officers, who proceeded to lock the door. They then made their way over to the Capital B Division, but she said they started throwing bricks at the officers, which she learned came from a hole they had made in the wall the night before.
While standing at her post, she saw smoke coming from the south of the Capital A division. She recalled hearing someone shout, “Fire!” She related that officers ran to the Chief Office, collected fire extinguishers and ran back to Capital A. They then ran back down the stairs and proceeded to Capital B; she could not say why they did this. According to Lewis-Charles, in a matter of seconds—about 90 as she later approximated—the entire division was engulfed and the white smoke turned black.
The officer related that Pilgrim at that time went to the Chief Office and instructed her to alert the ops room so the fire service could be called. She said she did same, and the siren was sounded.
She stated that officers attempted to put out the fire before the Fire Service arrived using the tools available to them but were unsuccessful, and flames and smoke eventually began coming through the bars of the door and the window space.