– Inquiry to commence today with testimony of prisoners
Justice James Patterson, who will be chairing the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the recent unrests at the
From left: former Prison Chief Dale Erskine; Justice (rtd) James Patterson; and Human Rights activist Merle Mendonca at a news conference on Wednesday
Georgetown Prison, has described the facility as a “warzone”.
Inmates on remand at the facility started to protest after prison officials seized several contraband items during a raid at the Capital A section on Wednesday, March 2. In retaliation, the prisoners started several fires on Wednesday night, and another the following morning. The last fire on Thursday claimed the lives of 17 prisoners, while others were injured.
Then on Friday, the angry inmates began to lash out again, kicking out the entire wooden wall of one of the buildings located South in the compound. This behaviour prompted Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon to meet with 18 prisoners who voiced their concerns about the living conditions in the Camp Street penitentiary.
In preparation for the presidential probe, the three-member Commission visited the Camp Street Prison on Tuesday during which it witnessed the aftermath of last week’s disturbances. The other two members of the Commission are former Director of Prisons Dale Erskine and human rights activist Merle Mendonca.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday morning, Chairman of the Commission, Justice James Patterson disclosed that while he did not know the state of the Camp Street penitentiary before the incident, what he saw during his visit at the facility, he likened to that of a warzone.
“It wasn’t nice. What at least I saw seemed like a warzone that they’re now getting back together. I saw two contending factions – one may be described by some as the wretched of the earth and the other as the oppressors. It is sad,” the Chairman commented.
According to Justice Patterson, the Commissioners met prisons officers who seemed to have gone days without any sleep. Moreover, the Commission disclosed that the current ratio at the facility of officers to the general prison population is 10 custodial ranks to about 1000 prisoners.
The Guyana Prison Service has long been dealing with the issue of overcrowding, particularly at the Georgetown Prison. The Camp Street facility was built to accommodate 775 inmates but houses more than 900 inmates. Officials have confirmed that there are currently approximately 945 inmates there.
Over the years, prisoners have complained bitterly about the condition of the jailhouse but no serious steps were taken to address those complaints. Several recommendations were made, some originating from inquiries, but were never acted upon.
Nevertheless, this probe into last week’s events will be looking into the issue and, more so, make recommendations to address the situation. However, the Chairman noted that it is up to Government whether they will implement any of those recommendations.
Meanwhile, the work of the Commission is set to commence today, with the panel scheduled to take testimonies from five prisoners who were present during the unrest. At the time of the press briefing, arrangements were still being finalised as it relates to the prisoners testifying.
However, Justice Patterson noted all the hearings will be open to the public expect for cases where the witness request anonymity.
“There is no question of locking out the public… let me emphasised if anybody wants to give a testimony in-camera (closed-door), let me get the proof and if the Commission so determine, so be it. But we are not going to use (this process) to let people make spurious allegations against anybody and hide under the cover of anonymity,” he declared.
The hearings will commence from 10:00h and will run until 14:00h, at the Ministry of the Presidency’s Department of Public Service building on Waterloo Street. While they were given a month’s time to complete the probe, the Chairman noted that achieving this may not be possible at this time.
Additionally, the Chairman addressed concerns of persons about conflict of interest given the involvement of Commissioner Erskine, a former Prison Director in the probe. “The fact that he once was there, you can’t really shut out people from saying anything about anybody. I was there when he took the oath to be partial and I expect him to do that… The assumption that somebody because of some association, tenuous, will not be fair in his judgment is an oblique attack on the gentleman’s character… you have to come up with something more substantial,” Justice Patterson pointed out.
During the meeting on Tuesday, the Commission agreed on an initial approach to their task as well as to the structure of the report. The areas of inquiry includes what happened and how did it happen, what happened that ought not to have happened, and what did not happen which ought to have happened.
In the meanwhile, arrangements will be put in place for the affected inmates, officers and families to undergo grief counselling during the inquiry.