It is unfair to blame either Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan, President David Granger or the government for last Sunday’s jailbreak and fire at the Camp Street prison without a full view of the preventative steps that were taken, according to retired judge James Patterson, who headed the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into last year’s fatal prison unrest at the facility.
“It’s quite unfair [to call for Ramjattan’s resignation] because we don’t know what efforts he made. The ultimate decision is not his, it’s Cabinet’s,” Patterson told Sunday Stabroek during a recent interview, where he also said that some of the recommendations that were produced could have been implemented almost immediately, while work could have started on others that would require extensive time and money.
In wake of last Sunday’s jailbreak and fire at the facility, which left one warder dead and several of his colleagues injured, calls have been made for Ramjattan to step down as this is the second major prison incident that has occurred under his watch. Fingers were also pointed at the Granger administration given that it had spent $13 million on an inquiry that produced 70 recommendations.
Questions continue to be asked about whether more could have been done to secure the prison and prevent not only the possibility of a fire but the breakout by six high-profile inmates (one has since been recaptured), especially in the light of the 17 lives that were lost in last year’s prison fire.
Patterson said that several of the operational recommendations and those relating to women and juveniles could have been implemented with little or no difficulty. He said that the administrative and infrastructure recommendations are harder to implement given the amount of money and planning involved but there is nothing barring those in authority from starting the process. “At the end of the day, there are contending forces for the limited resources… so I am not one to venture any sort of judgement without having all the evidence before me. That we do not have,” he stressed.
Government has said that it has “done a lot of work” since the recommendations were received. However, Ramjattan has only spoken at length about the expansion of the Mazaruni Prison.
He revealed last week that $276 million were allocated for the first phase of the expansion works. Those works are yet to begin as there was a delay in the hiring of a consultant. That issue has been resolved and in another six weeks tenders for contractors will be advertised. No timeline was given as to when this expected expansion could begin.
The CoI had recommended the upgrading of the Mazaruni Prison facilities to improve the prison’s capacity to house inmates under humane conditions and the completion of a new prison at Lusignan.
The CoI made several recommendations to address the infrastructure of the Camp Street prison. Among them were a review of the internal walls of high security blocks to avoid prisoners breaking through them, introduction of a more effective lighting system in dormitories to avoid tampering and turning off of lights by prisoners in divisions. The possible removal of the Camp Street prison was also recommended.
Asked about the removal of the prison, Patterson stressed the need for understanding that this could not happen overnight; he said it was more of a long-term objective. How long this removal will take, he further noted, would depend on available resources. “You and I are at a disadvantage of not knowing what money they have,” he said.
Caught off guard
Former Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee, in a recent letter to this newspaper, said the government is guilty of dereliction by not taking seriously the recommendations of the CoI.
“The Herculean efforts by the administration of which I was an integral part to carry out comprehensive prison reform went up in flames long before the flames that engulfed the Georgetown Prisons on Sunday. This occurrence has come about because too many things were taken for granted by both Minister of Public Security Mr Ramjattan and the government as a whole. It is due largely to the incompetence of the Minister of Public Security in particular and the Granger administration in general. It is beyond the shadow of a doubt a matter of collective responsibility,” Rohee, who served under the former PPP/C administration, wrote.
Among the other recommendations of the CoI was the creation of plans to cater for fires, riots and hostage taking at the prison. When asked about this, Patterson said that the events of last Sunday were a clear sign that the authorities were caught off guard. “Authorities wouldn’t think that something like this would happen just a year after. So they would figure, we got more pressing things… so that would be the masterminding of how they think. They get ketch with their pants down, they didn’t expect something like this,” he said.
However, Patterson added that it is only assumed that no plan was executed. “We don’t know if they didn’t have a plan. We only assume that because we don’t think any plan was executed… I imagine the minister responsible for it, who knows, he may have been advocating but Cabinet got to decide. So I don’t know if they shout him down or what,” he said.
He also said that it cannot be expected that some of the key issues, such as training, would be rectified in a year as it takes time.
“We can’t grumble really that we give the report a year ago and why they didn’t do it. One, it takes time to train them. Two, the quality …bad. It takes time,” he stressed.
Patterson added that while training would take time, something could have been done in this area in the short term, such as starting the process of change to decide which takes priority in bringing about that change. “We could only give broad guidelines but it is up to them to follow them,” he said, adding that it is easy to find fault in this situation. “I have to emphasise that government is in office just over two years, so it is understandable that people who are not au fait with the hurdles that they have to get pass would be anxious if things are moving too slow… I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt but something has got to be said to placate the Guyanese people who want to know why and what is going on,” he added.
Patterson also said that society discriminates against prisoners and, therefore, very little attention is paid to their well-being. “Prisoners are human beings [but are] treated like the wretched of the earth… Sufficient focus nor attention has not been paid to prisoners over the years,” he said, while adding that there is nothing there to give them hope.
Time is of the essence
Asked to respond to views that the inquiry was a wasted effort, Patterson said he did not think so. “I feel this last disaster highlights the urgency more than ever and it makes our findings more relevant and more crucial. Time is of the essence,” he argued.
He said that when it comes to the recommendations for the prison staff to be increased, the ratio of female to male staff reviewed (more than half of the prison staff are women) and the recruitment and training of ranks, it must be understood that “Rome was not built in a day.” Staffing, he observed, is “not like going into the market and buying apples.”
According to Patterson, he has shed “silent tears” because the sources of trainees today for the both the prison service and the police force are not of the highest quality. He said that he had noticed that certificates in education take precedence over a balanced individual and he made the observation that there are people with Masters degrees who lack the ability to put together a “proper” sentence.
He also said that the Granger administration has its “own standards of priority… The sugar workers balling for more money. Some of us feel teachers should get more money… And then corruption can’t be assassinated completely in 12 months and that is why I hear rumours that corruption still obtains in the prisons. Well, we can’t jump and blame the people who running it. They can only do so much,” he said.
He added that the issue of increasing staff is a more long-term objective given all the dynamics involved, including the much needed training but the process nonetheless could be started.
On the issue of the welfare of prison officers, Sunday Stabroek asked Patterson what would be a reasonable pay package.
He did not give a number but simply said that the Minister of Finance would have a menu of needs. “I don’t mean to be harsh on him at all but he really ain’t considering that you are a prison officer and you are a she… Females get a rough deal all around,” he said. This newspaper has since learnt that the basic monthly salary for a prison warder is currently $90,401. This amount represents an increase since last year’s unrest.
Meanwhile, Patterson said the death of prison warder Odinga Wickham, who was shot five times, was a personal blow to him because the warder had served as an adviser to one of the persons involved in the inquiry and he carried himself very well.
Mark Royden Williams, who was sentenced to death in February this year over the 2008 Bartica massacre, where 12 men were killed, is said to be the mastermind of the jailbreak. Officials have already said that though he was housed in his own cell, he was able to solicit the assistance of his fellow inmates to break him out on Sunday. He remains on the run. The others on the run are murder accused Stafrei Alexander and Uree Varswyk, along with Cobena Stephens, also known as ‘OJ,’ and accused Trinidadian drug trafficker, Cornelius Thomas.
It is believed that four of the men are moving together and are somewhere in the East Coast backlands.