At the time of dispatching my letter to the media on the night of Sunday, July 9, at 9.23pm I called on the Joint Services to be more pro-active in their public relations reporting concerning the unfolding events at the scene of the conflagration at the Georgetown Prisons. At that time, there was not a single official report on the number of fatalities or the injured on either the law enforcement or the prisoner sides, neither was there any information about the number of escapees.
Thus far, the situation remains the same. There is a virtual news blackout from government sources on the developing situation. Subsequently, via the media, we heard about a confrontation between custodial ranks and a group of armed inmates and reports of a shooting incident and hostage taking. We were told that in that confrontation, a prison officer was relieved of his weapon by the prisoners. An answer must be given as to why such a large number of inmates were released from their place of confinement and were out in the open at the same time, and how prisoners got hold of the keys to unlock the strong cells where the condemned and special watch prisoners are held.
Why there were so few prison officers on duty on that particular day is another question that must be answered.
We were not told how many prisoners and prison officers were involved in the armed confrontation or whether the prison armory was secure at the time of the confrontation.
Importantly, were the Guyana Prison Service’s freshly minted Standard Operating Procedures followed at the first sign that an unusual situation had appeared, and was the potential for it to escalate underestimated? In this regard, the injuries suffered by prison officers and the death of PO Wickham should never have occurred and must not be allowed to pass without a thorough investigation.
Based on reports emanating mainly from the media and not from the government’s information agency there appear to be some striking similarities with the 2002 jail break, save and except for the fiery conflagration that brought the prison to ashes. How no prisoner died or was seriously injured in the midst of the ensuing chaos is a total mystery to many.
Prime Minister Nagamootoo while accompanying the President on a visit to the burnt-out site sought to scotch speculation about bodies being burnt and buried in the rubble. He sought confirmation on the matter from the Chief Fire Officer (CFO). The CFO of course did not answer the question definitively because he knows that the fire department does not possess either the technical or scientific capacity to do so, nor is the Guyana Fire Service the ultimate agency to determine such matters. Further, the CFO knows full well such a determination is the job for forensics.
So far, there is no indication that the government intends to invite in forensic experts to put that question to rest; instead of doing so it has moved to quickly clean up the site thus removing traces of evidential value.
Thus justifiable questions are being asked as to whether this whole affair was carefully planned and expertly executed with outside help on a Sunday at 15:00 hours, knowing the security and level of alertness at the prison on that day and at that time would be low; when the full complement of custodial ranks would be at the bare minimum, and where the element of surprise could be used to the max.
On instructions from ringleaders, fire was set in a calculated manner at the four corners of the prison where old wooden buildings were situated. The fires and the confusion that arose therefrom were obviously aimed at creating an atmosphere of panic and chaos, so that apart from the anticipated collateral damage, enough coverage, time and space would be given to those bent on escaping from captivity.
Nevertheless, congratulations are in order for the Joint Services for the well-coordinated, uneventful evacuation and transference of the huge prison population.
However, questions are being asked how come such effectiveness and efficiency was demonstrated by the Joint Services only at the stage of evacuation and transference and not at the equally important stage to assert command and control over the situation within the walls of the prison, which were so vital and necessary to bring the situation under control.
In this respect, I disagree with Mr Erskine when he said that the authorities should now focus on finding solutions rather than the faults. In my view both are important.
If we don’t know the faults we cannot determine the solutions. It will be recalled that during the March 3, 2016 uprising at the same prison location 17 lives were lost.
Many faults were found but few solutions were implemented. In the meanwhile, it is estimated that 8 prisoners have escaped.
The announcement by the President about “going back to the drawing board to determine whether it is appropriate to have at the centre of the city a facility like this” is nothing but a foregone conclusion that was reached many years ago.
All that has happened is that the administration has now been presented on a platter with the opportunity to design and construct a modern facility to cater for a particular category of prisoner at that location which serves logistically, the upper and lower courts well.
Clement J Rohee