Though it failed to pass, a PPP/C motion on last year’s ruinous fire at the Camp Street jail saw Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan taking the heat over measures that the opposition MPs felt should have been taken.
Using a motion, moved by its Chief Whip Gail Teixeira for suspended member Juan Edghill, opposition members yesterday sought to have government accept collective responsibility for repeated disastrous events in the prisons here.
Teixeira said that the motion came into being, “because the government was being very reluctant to speak on what was going on”.
On the 9th of July, 2017, fire set by inmates flattened the Camp Street Prison and the nearby Officers’ Recreational Centre. The fire was a diversion by four inmates who escaped at the same time from the country’s main penitentiary and in the process shot and killed a prison guard, brutally chopped another and wounded four others.
Since the fire and subsequent unrest at other prisons, the opposition has been repeatedly calling for the resignation of the Minister of Public Security. And while yesterday’s motion did not repeat those calls, members during their presentations echoed the sentiments much to the bemusement of Ramjattan.
The Public Security Minister said that the motion was a waste of time as since the fire his ministry has done much to remedy the problems at not only the Camp Street prison but others countrywide. He said that evidence of this can be seen in press reports and pointed to help from the IDB and the recent announcement that an over $3B new prison was being built at Mazaruni which will help with overcrowding.
Ramjattan put on record that he has accepted that as minister he holds responsibility for what happens in the sector but that he will not resign now as he cannot be termed responsible for the fire.
“I want to make it quite clear – I said yes I am the one responsible and I have always said that and at a political realm I hold myself responsible …but that does not mean that if you responsible that it means resignation…and no, I will not resign,” he said.
The motion called for government to make full disclosure of all aspects of the 2017 tragedy at the Georgetown Prison and to declare what actions have been and are being taken to reduce the opportunities for such situations from recurring.
“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the National Assembly calls on the Government to make full disclosure with regard to the circumstances surrounding the most recent escape of prisoners on July 24, 2017; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the National Assembly lends its support to the Disciplined Services in its efforts to ensure public safety and the protection of our citizens and the recapture of all the escapees,” the motion read.
Leading off the debate, Teixeira said that events at the Camp Street Prison piqued her interest because of the fact, among other elements, she was a former Minister of Home Affairs and on the lighter side grew up in Werk-en-Rust where the prison is located.
Teixeira said that enough was not done, starting with insufficient simulated emergency response drills before the fire, for prison staff.
She said that as she gathered information and watched the events unfold via her television her heart rate quickened with fear. Positing that she believed that unrest at the prison results from poor leadership, she said that Ramjattan should take responsibility for what happened as “the buck stops with him.”
Former Minister of Education Priya Manickchand and members Harry Gill, Joe Hamilton and Yvonne Pearson echoed that position.
“In most developing countries, the Honourable Minister of Public Security would have been fired, or, asked to resign in keeping with his own views on the convention of ministerial responsibility. But why has this not happened?” Gill questioned.
Further, he added, “Is it that Cabinet is satisfied with the performance of this Minister? Why is it that after 18 deaths (in 2016) and the destruction of the Georgetown prison (last year), this Minister has not been sanctioned by Cabinet?”
Manickchand called on Ramjattan to make the details pertaining to the tragedy public and to implement recommendations from a 2016 COI led by retired Justice James Patterson, who is now Chairman of Gecom. She said the issue of overcrowding needs to be tackled holistically and there is no evidence that this is being done.
But Ramjattan dismissed the assertions and claims by the opposition saying that he has always been open and that nearly all of the recommendations have been implemented or that government was working to implement them.
“I am not keeping them in the dark because Honourable Mr. Gill too, whenever he wants any information from me he would phone and he would get it. The same thing I would do in relation to Clement Rohee. Indeed there has been communication with and serving with documents so they must not come here and say the security committee under Ramjattan is keeping them in the dark,” he argued.
“You do not come here and say the committee wasn’t functioning and all of that. I am not keeping you in the dark I would never do that,” he said as he pointed to many reports that have been handed over to the opposition.
To the issue of overcrowding, he noted that not only government but “nearly everyone” knows that the problem was multilayered and had spinoffs from other issues such as space and sloth in the judiciary.
But he said that the opposition is sending mixed signals when they ask for the overcrowding problem to be dealt with because on one hand they say he must not interfere with the work of the judiciary and the other that he should use his powers to lobby for improvement.
“This is the difficulty I have because one is saying I am interfering with the judiciary and the other is asking what we can do,” he asserted.
He assured that more works will be seen soon as he is awaiting a reform report “and as soon as I get that I am going to come back and we are going to have a massive exercise in terms of security sector matters.”
Ramjattan said that the opposition was being hypocritical in their motion as accurate records are given to them.
“Briefs with the opposition were done … There were also about eight press conferences on the fire and I answered all the questions. There is some ambivalence there,” he added.
And to calls for a COI into the 2017 fire he promised that his earlier comment that when all prisoners are found there would be a detailed one, still holds and will happen.
But he questioned the call for a COI when there were much criticisms that the Patterson COI was a waste of state funds. They were saying…that Mr. Patterson sought to exculpate me from many of the things that happened of 2016, and to give the impression that it would be a waste of time to have another COI. At this point and time yes…when the two more are captured, yes we will have an inquiry but until such time… well,” he said.