Prisoner Michael Lewis on Tuesday took the stand and testified that despite undergoing an entire week of drill exercises,
An emotional Michael Lewis during his testimony on Tuesday morning
prison officers at the Georgetown penitentiary did not apply any of those practices during the March 3, fire which claimed the lives of 17 inmates.
He was at the time being cross-examined by the President of the Guyana Bar Association, Attorney Christopher Ram. Lewis told the Commission that on the morning of March 3, when the fire started in the dormitory (Capital A Division) about 34 inmates were locked in.
The prisoner, who is awaiting High Court trial on a murder charge, recalled that after the fire started, while they were locked in the Division, it was put out by prison officers who used a fire extinguisher through a hole that was dug in a concrete wall that separated the Capital A and B Divisions.
He added that two cans of tear gas were then thrown into the section causing the prisoners to panic, shouting for help and pleading with the officers to open the door.
However, he noted that there were no attempts by the prison officials to open the door or take any other actions as was performed during the drill exercises earlier that week.
“Sir, I must say, even before this fire, the prison warden them was practicing fire drill that whole week… and when these fire do start that claim the prisoners’ life Sir, the prison wardens them try to give no assistance as what they were practicing for whole week on this fire drill. When we watched (the drill) from our location through the window, we could see the officer running into the wood building, fetching inmates pon dem back and running straight out to the office and resting them on the ground, practicing the fire drill Sir (but) this time pon de fire, no officer do such,” he declared.
While standing in the dock with tears running down his face, Lewis said he prayed as saw one of the inmates’ burnt body.
“I stop for Allah… praying so that I can get out… I was lying down in there over an hour and no officer come, I just keep praying and calling for Allah, God Almighty to open the door… I could have saw an inmate by the name of (Rayon) Paddy who was about two feet away from me, he was in no fire, and all he skin was already peel… and I remember at one time I run from the hole and run to the bathroom and I could have feel two bodies already in the bathroom Sir,” a sobbing Lewis recounted to the Commission.
According to Lewis in his statement to the Commission, “prison officers treat inmates like beasts”. He explained that whenever prisoners are sick or in pain, they would have to wait over a day, or sometimes longer, before they are taken to the prison infirmary. In other cases, the inmates would have to create a ruckus to get the attention of the Prison Chief in order to receive treatment.
Moreover, Lewis related to the Commission about the poor quality of food they receive at the facility. He disclosed that for breakfast they are given porridge or tea – sometimes with tea bag and other times just sugar and water. However, he added that on Wednesdays, they also receive bread.
For lunch, the inmate said they are given cook up with chunks and sometimes there would be “strands of meat”. But according to him, this has improved since the commencement of the CoI.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s proceedings continued with the Commission visiting the Camp Street Prison. The three-member panel, which also includes former Prison Director Dale Erskine and Human Rights Activists Merle Mendonca, had previously visited the facility before the commencement of the inquiry.
Among those on the tour were Commissioners Patterson and Erskine; support staff of the Commission, including the Commission’s Counsel Execellence Dazzell; GBA representatives, Attorneys Christopher Ram and Glenn Hanoman; and Attorney Selwyn Pieters who is representing the Guyana Prison Service and the Guyana Police Force. Media operatives were also allowed into the facility during the visit but for security purposes were not allowed to walk with any devices.
The visiting party of about 20 plus persons was given a tour of the Capital A and B Divisions. In the Capital A Division, burnt debris in the section were scattered around, including half burnt mattresses, clothing, bed frames, and containers (bowls and bottles).
The stench of burnt flesh was high as the Division remained lockdown. Access was gained through the B Division where the hole was dug into the separating wall. Lewis was brought to the site where he pointed out to the Commission strategic points mentioned in his testimony earlier in the day. He was questioned by Commissioners, Commission Counsel and the attorneys-at-law. Back over in the B Division, items were also scattered all around.
On the other hand, prison officials – Officer in Charge of the Camp Street facility Kevin Pilgrim and the Guyana Prison Services’ Works Officer Kirk Joseph – were asked about the infrastructure of the facility, specifically about the water plumbing infrastructure.
Earlier in the day, Lewis had testified that there were no water running from the pipes in the Division after tear gas was thrown into the building. However, the prison officials explained to the visiting party that there is an overhead tank above the Capital Divisions and water is pumped up there for use by inmates. Joseph noted that the only way the water flow can be stopped is if a prison officer goes into the attic where the tanks are and shuts it off.
Moreover, Pilgrim pointed to surveillance cameras from the one of the administrative buildings that captures the front of the Capital Division. He said that if any prison official did in fact intercept the water flow into the Division, it would be documented on the footage, which will be handed over to the Commission.
The visit was wrapped up in about 45 minutes.