Prison siren wasn’t sounded at first sight of fire –prison officer

Testimony before the Commission of Inquiry into the fatal prison unrest yesterday confirmed that the siren, which is sounded to indicate there is an emergency at the Camp Street prison, did not go off at the sighting of the first fire on March 3.

This is contrary to the Standard Operating Procedures of the institution, based on evidence submitted.

Roddy Denhart, Chief Prison Officer, yesterday stated that while he was alerted to the first fire in the Capital B division after an alarm was raised by officers, the first time he heard the siren sound was when a fire was seen at the Capital A Division.

When asked before by Commission Counsel Excellence Dazzell the procedure that should be followed were a fire to occur, Denhart stated that after an alarm is raised, the operations room should be notified and they should then proceed to sound the siren and make contact with the Guyana Fire Service (GFS). This is the procedure that should be followed every time a fire is sighted.

Denhart had led the group of prison officers who ran up to the Chief’s Office of the Camp Street prison to retrieve fire extinguishers when they were alerted that there was a fire in the Capital B Division.

When this fire began, inmates of that division were in the process of exiting, about 10 were left according to his estimation. He said the prisoners of the Capital A Division had begun cursing at the B inmates, shouting statements such as, “Y’all ain ready for the war,” and referring to them in demeaning terms.

When he first saw the fire in the Capital A Division, after officers had come down from B, he said thin, white smoke had begun to escape from different angles of the dorm. Within minutes, the smoke became thick and black and the inmates in A started shouting, “Officer! Officer! Open the door, we gon come out now.”

Denhart said the prison officers stationed on the stairway to the division ran up and began efforts to open the door to the division. The prisoners, at this point, were positioned at the ventilation of the dorm, and screams of “murder” and “fire,” could be heard coming from the dorm.

He further related that the officers were forced to move away from the door at times as they were affected by the smoke. During this time, the fire service came and set up their hoses to begin fighting the fire.

Denhart recalled that the smoke eased for a while and then blazing fire started coming through the ventilation of the dorm. His guess is that the fire took approximately 20 to 25 minutes to go from the state of smoke to blazing fire. After continued efforts by the prison officers, who kicked and later employed the use of a fire extinguisher to hit at the lock, the door was opened.

Joint Services attorney Eusi Anderson had asked Denhart whether he has known inmates to ever tamper with the locks. Denhart said it is common for them to do so using pointers or to “sprain” the locks by hitting against it with a heavy object. He stated that he has never known of inmates in Capital A or B spraining the locks but when asked by Anderson if it was a possibility this could have been done and as early as the night of March 2, he said yes.

 

Overwhelmed

Denhart recalled two prisoners coming out of the Capital B division, mere seconds after the door to A was opened. He said he assisted one of those prisoners, Marcellous Verbeke, who appeared delirious at the time, and was shouting “Loose me leh I go and kill them! I gon kill them…”He could not say who Verbeke was referring to at the time. (Verbeke was being represented by attorney Dexter Todd, who during cross-examination of several inmates, had questioned whether they were aware of any prisoner who had planned to kill themselves, or had plots to burn down the Georgetown prison.)

Denhart said that when he went to the division after the fire was out, the experience for him was overwhelming. He recalled that the feeling was so great that he could not hold up his own weight, and had to grab onto the rail for support. He then proceeded to make his way down the stairs where he sat on the tarmac.

He had seen inmates lying in heaps, clothes burnt off their bodies, and in his view, the positions some of the bodies were in made it appear as though they died asking for help as some were lying on the floor with their hands outstretched. He also recalled seeing a body lying on a bedframe from which the mattress had burnt completely off.

When Patricia Anderson, Chief Prison Officer and Medex at the Georgetown prison testified yesterday, she could not recall seeing that particular body. She did, however, recall seeing bodies lying on the floor under a bed.

Anderson had been called to triage the prisoners after the fire was extinguished. Although she was stationed in the compound at the time the events were occurring, she said she was unable to hear what was going on in the prison yard because of where her office is located.

Anderson was the senior medical person on duty that day as the doctor had not been on site. When asked by attorney Anderson if she would agree with the opinion that more lives could have been saved had a doctor been there, she said no, as they could only have triaged those who came out of the building, and of the group that came out, only one died. Seventeen inmates died as a result of the fire.

It was previously reported that inmate Rayon Paddy had died after being transported to the Georgetown Public Hospital. According to Anderson’s evidence, when she examined Paddy that day, he was not responding to verbal commands and his level of consciousness was low.

Anderson, like Denhart, had gone to the Capital A division in the aftermath of the tragedy. She, however, stayed much longer than Denhart, having been involved in searching the ruins for survivors.

She had some difficulty at this point of her testimony but opted to continue giving evidence. When asked by attorney Anderson if she was trained to observe bodies for trauma, she said yes. She, however, could not recall having seen any bodies with trauma or inflicted wounds. She also could not recall seeing any headless bodies, or bodies with the intestines protruding, both of which were reportedly seen by either inmates and/or prison officers who entered the division afterwards.

When asked by Commission Counsel if it was possible she was unable to examine the room as she was taught to because of the trauma of the incident, she replied that that may be true to some extent.

 

Influential

The prisoner whose removal it has been widely reported led to the protest of the other inmates of the Capital A division, was described by Denhart as being influential among the inmates. He said the inmate, Collis Collison, who Denhart said he has known for about six years, wields much influence because of his many contacts in the criminal world. He stated that he is never one to easily comply with rules, and has been subject to charges within the institution on several occasions—more than 15, he said—mainly for assault and robbery of inmates.

When the task force extracted him during the search, Denhart recalled that prisoners began banging on the walls, and he heard a declaration that if “anybody touch duh man y’all know wah yall gon get.”

 

Pouching

When asked where inmates got the instruments to light fires, Denhart said they were usually thrown over the fence in packages or brought into the prison by “pouching.” Pouching, he explained, is where prisoners, while out on labour duties or on visits to the court, would place contraband in their anus to conceal it. Such items he has witnessed being brought into the institution through this method are cellphones, marijuana, and in one rare instance, a cellphone charger.

The situation now, as he described it, is one in which the officers have lost control and where the prisoners have gotten so brazen in their demeanour that they smoke marijuana, wield their weapons and use cellphones in the presence of the prison officers. He recounted that recently, an officer was choked and robbed by a prisoner and another had an improvised weapon used against him in a threatening manner.

Anderson related that currently, all staff are required to work 24 hours, where they usually work 8-hour shifts.

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