As the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the fatal riots at the Georgetown Prison commenced on Thursday, two inmates testified that they were locked in Capital A Division before the fire started by prison officers, who refused to let them out afterwards.
The two prisoners told the Commission that on the morning of Thursday, March 3, they were told to come out of the Capital A Division for a search to be conducted, however, about 30 of them were locked in by prison officials.
One of the witnesses, 32-year-old Errol Kesney, explained that some prisoners had alerted them that prison officers were hitting inmates in the yard and so they refused to come out of the Division.
“Some of the guys them start come out (in groups of five as instructed) ‘cause everybody couldn’t come out at the said time and the first five that come in the yard, the Task Force (prison officers) start drag him in a manner like they beating them and everybody start run back. They (the prisoners) say them beating them men, them beating them man, let we don’t go out, them gon beat all ah we,” he recalled.
Kesney noted that a prison officer, whom he later identified as Deputy Director of Prisons “Mr (Gladwin) Samuels”, instructed that the door be locked and so another officer complied. He noted that at that point in time, some of the prisoners began breaking a hole in the wall that separates the Capital A Division from Capital B and so he, along with some others, crawled over to the other Division.
However, he said the Deputy Director of Prisons was there at the door ushering out inmates from that Division and so they rushed back into Capital A Division. It was at this point that Kesney said they saw a small fire which was extinguished but soon after, black smoke was seen spinning from the floor.
“Everybody start running wild and holler we want come out, we want come out; open the door, open the door,” the prisoner recalled.
He added that his skin began to blister and so he ran along with some others prisoners to the back of the Division to get fresh air. It was then that they realised it was tear gas.
“We didn’t see no fire at the time, bare smoke in the building and we stay down there getting fresh air. Then I feel a heat start coming down on me, I look up and see a red fire glare coming. (Rayon) Paddy like he crawl and go out looking for somebody and tell we yall don’t move from there… he crawl and come back, and next thing I see he skin start burn off. Then is when I know well is fire take over de place,” he related.
On the other hand, another witness, Dwayne Lewis, in his testimony recalled that after the door was locked, a fire started in the middle of the Division. However, he could not say who started the fire and how it begun.
Tear gas smoke
“Well after the fire started, it start to smoke up the place. We began to apply for water to control the situation, then some men was breaking a hole in the wall to escape… About six cans of tear smoke was thrown into the building… It start to burn our eyes and skin so we run to a small ventilated area and we start calling for help but haven’t got any response from outside. The fire eventually grow bigger and bigger, and took over the whole cell causing some of the inmates to be badly burnt up,” he recounted.
Lewis, who is awaiting High Court trial for a manslaughter charge, told the Commission that he escaped through the hole in the wall and went into the yard, while Kesney recalled that he along with other inmates eventually got out when inmates from another section of the Capital Division broke in and began throwing water on the blaze. He said by that time, the door was reopened and they were able to exit the building.
Both men revealed that they sustained minor burn injuries.
Additionally, the inmates recounted the events of Wednesday, March 2, with Lewis detailing to the Commission that during the search conducted by prison officers and ranks of the Guyana Police Force, a number of cellphones, a quantity of “leaves, seeds and stems suspected to be marijuana” and several “prison made cutlasses” were found. Asked how the items may have gotten into the facility, the prisoner declared “I can’t say that part Sir; even if I want to say that part, I would not say that part”.
Lewis further noted that while he cannot say how his fellow inmates felt when the items were taken away, “you could see it in their faces that they felt a way”. He pointy explained that the cellphones provide some sort of “comfort” to prisoners during their incarceration, adding that it would make the prison administration calm, thus preventing events such as last week’s riot.
Meanwhile, Kesney told the Commission that without their cellphones, prisoners would “plug out”, meaning get angry. “Anything could happen (when a man plug out). When a man get flashes, he could trip out pon any person,” he remarked.
According to the 32-year-old inmate, who claimed that he was wrongfully charged and that the name he was charged under (Errol Williams) is not his, “I see death, is God save me… the devil was busy that day”.
During the testimonies, the men also voiced concerns about the living conditions at the Camp Street penitentiary. Poor food, long detention periods, insufficient toiletries, inadequate recreation, overcrowding and limited or no access to contact their families, were some of the concerns raised by the two prisoners.
The inquiry will continue today at the Public Service Building on Waterloo Street and the three-member Commission is expected to hear from more prisoners.
Seventeen persons died during the riots but only nine bodies have been identified thus far.