Although taking overall responsibility for the “embarrassing” escape of 13 high-risk prisoners from the Lusignan pasture, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan yesterday brushed off calls for his resignation.
“I am here because I indeed wanted to help in the security sector. It is unfortunate that this thing has happened under my stewardship and indeed it is a bad thing, if I may say so, but resignation is not a word that I am normally associated with,” he told reporters during a press conference held at his Brickdam office.
Among those who have called for his immediate resignation are Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo and former home affairs minister Clement Rohee.
The two recent jailbreaks–occurring just two weeks apart—follow a major fire last year at the Georgetown Prison, where 17 inmates died.
Following the first calamity, the David Granger-led government was heavily criticised after a second fire at the facility on July 9 left a prison warden dead, several injured and the majority of the prison destroyed. Several inmates also escaped.
In wake of the Lusignan escape, which is believed to have occurred during the wee hours of yesterday, Ramjattan is likely to face more scrutiny about his ability to efficiently manage his portfolio.
But, reacting to the calls for him to resign yesterday, Ramjattan pointed out that he has gone through a “lot that is equivalent to this” during his political career. “I am still here and I wanna believe that I will be still standing when all is over,” he said.
Asked who ought to take the blame for the escape, Ramjattan accepted overall responsibility. “I don’t want to start identifying specifically who ought to take the blame. I am ultimately responsible. Okay? I am ultimately responsible,” he added.
He did, however, note that those directly responsible were the security personnel in and around the perimeter of the walled area, the roof and the towers at the Lusignan facility. The prison warders are being assisted by members of the Joint Services to secure the area, which comprises the actual prison, the pasture and a recently constructed area nearby where inmates were being housed.
“At this stage, I don’t want to go there… There have been huge setbacks and lapses and things that could very well be blaming a number of people here but I would prefer, as minister in charge, not to go that direction now. We have a literal war fighting and if I am to go start dealing with all kinds of dereliction of duty, it might not help in the process,” Ramjattan said.
While noting that he appreciates the validity of questions surrounding who should take the blame, he urged that that should not be the focus now. “…At this stage, not me, I am not going to go there at this point in time. There will be a time for that,” he said.
Asked if he and the government are embarrassed by the escape, given the security background of top members of the administration, Ramjattan responded in the affirmative.
“Look, I am very embarrassed at what happened last night. Very embarrassed… it is terrible what has transpired but you know we have to continue with this fight catching in a manhunt those 17 persons,” he said.
In addition to the 13 who escaped yesterday, four dangerous prisoners who were among the escapees on July 9 remain at large.
President Granger is a retired Brigadier and former national security adviser, while Minister of State Joseph Harmon is also a retired army officer. A number of ministerial advisors and several employed in key government positions also have military backgrounds.
Ramjattan told reporters that in tandem with the efforts to catch the escapees, the policy issues of enhancing the legislative framework and completing consultancies in relation to pre-detention trials, alternative sentencing and the Mazaruni Prison are to be completed. These, he said, “are the big things we have to get [done] to solve this problem. Yes, you will have the malfeasance that had occurred there that allowed this to happen but… it will continue to happen this way if we don’t get those big things solved… consultancies have already been granted by the IDB and this ministry… you have seen an imprint of a new prison we are going to construct, almost 12 houses for the prison officers will be completed this month or later next month.”
The minister noted that he did not want “us, however, to surrender to these criminals… at times we too can get cheesed off and do a couple of things that can only enhance their efforts and bring down ours. We must not allow that to happen.” He said the escape was an unfortunate setback but “here we are and we have to move on. Catch them and get some new prisons.”
Regarding the immediate decisions coming out of the national security meeting yesterday, Ramjattan said that among them are increasing outer perimeter patrols; increasing infrastructural work, particularly the number of spotlights and CCTV cameras; and alternative work at the Camp Street Prison, inclusive of a tented administrative building instead of a permanent structure, to reinforce the new brick prison that will now house the 86 remaining prisoners from the Lusignan pasture.
Noting that both the New Amsterdam and Mazaruni Prisons are “saturated,” he said that he did not want more inmates to be placed at either facility as there could be another fire, which would result in persons again calling for his resignation from office. “It is important that we understand the predicament that we are in…,” he stressed.