September 29, 2016

President orders immediate probe amid chaos

…confiscation of prohibited items sparks unrest – Superintendent of Prisons

Following the massive unrest at the Camp Street Prisons, government announced that a three-member Commission of Inquiry (COI) will immediately be launched to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of prisoners and to also make recommendations to prevent similar occurrences.

Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan and prison authorities briefing the media at an emergency press conference following the prison unrest

Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan and prison authorities briefing the media at an emergency press conference following the prison unrest

Security beefed up outside of the Camp Street Prison

Security beefed up outside of the Camp Street Prison

The names of the Commissioners will be announced today.
During an emergency press conference Thursday afternoon, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan declared the situation a “crisis” but assured all steps are being taken to keep the state of affairs under control.
At the time, Ramjattan had just departed an emergency meeting with the National Security Committee (NSC), inclusive of President David Granger, where they discussed the available options for addressing the situation.
Ramjattan disclosed that a number of recommendations were made including conjoining with the judiciary to address the issue of overpopulation at the prisons which is as a result of backlog cases in relation to prisoners on remand.
The Minister added that recommendations were made to establish a new prison but explained that the venture would be too expensive.
“That is not going to happen in the near future because we all know the capital amount required,” he stated.
Ramjattan also revealed that government is mulling the option of relocating some prisoners but noted that there may be some risks involved.
“There is as you would appreciate, a quicker reaction time for backup services from sister organisations like the army, police and the fire service, to deal with scenarios in that Georgetown Prison. If you are to take prisoners and carry them to Mazaruni (Prison), although there is space there, that kind of backup would not be as quick,” he explained.
He further noted that Georgetown Prison is in closer proximity to the Magistrates Courts and the High Court, making it easier for prisoners on remand to go to trial.

What prompted the unrest?
Prisoners reacted in outrage and began burning mattresses on Wednesday evening following the confiscation of certain prohibited items they had in their possession.
Asked how these prohibited items bypassed security, it was explained that there may be corrupt officers who would have aided in the process and that parcels are sometimes hurdled over the fence.
Prison authorities strongly believe that the seizure of these items, compounded with other concerns, triggered the unrest within the Capital ‘A’ Division of the penitentiary.
Superintendent of Prisons Kevin Pilgrim explained that around 14:00h Wednesday, a routine search was conducted and a quantum of narcotics along with 19 cellular phones were confiscated from the Capital ‘A’ Division.
The vexation of the prisoners, after their items were taken away, prompted the burning of mattresses within the jailhouse later that evening around 21:00h.
Guyana Fire Service (GFS) ranks and prison officers responded quickly and extinguished the blaze but just a few hours after, the inmates set other mattresses afire.
Pilgrim told the media that “the situation was relatively calm,” on Wednesday evening.

Shots fired
However, the situation rapidly escalated on Thursday morning and Pilgrim believed that prompting from the “general public” might have caused the unrest to spiral.
Pilgrim related that prison officers on Thursday morning around 10:00h commenced an operation to extract prisoners following the evening’s unrest. At the time, he said all inmates were alive. When the disturbances once again erupted, Pilgrim recalled that the disgruntled prisoners were demanding their items be returned.
He noted that some prisoners even expressed frustration over being behind bars for prolonged periods; they wanted to go to trial.
Pilgrim admitted that after the situation became insurmountable, one shot was fired in accordance to Standard Operating Procedures.
No further detail was provided in that regard.
There are also reports that some prisoners were beaten by prison officers during the unrest, but the prison authorities have denied this allegation.

Saving prisoners
The early morning unrest claimed the lives of 16 prisoners – one of whom died at the Georgetown Public Hospital while the other bodies were retrieved among debris in the jailhouse.  Authorities believe the prisoners died as a result of suffocation from inhaling thick smoke.
Director of Prisons Carl Graham assured that everything possible was done to prevent the fire from starting and to save the lives of the prisoners.
He reminded that the prison officers and other servicemen worked in the face of heat, with missiles being thrown, among other adverse conditions to ensure the prisoners’ lives were saved.
Meanwhile, President Granger in a media statement expressed  deepest sympathy to the families and other relatives of the prisoners who perished during the riot.
The names of those who died were not released.
The Camp Street Prison was built to accommodate 600 prisoners however to date close to 1,000 inmates are being housed.
There were 68 prisoners in the Capital ‘A’ Division.

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