By Alva Solomon
Prison authorities said they applied all relevant Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) while addressing the unrest at the Georgetown Prisons on Thursday, including the firing of a single gunshot, but the inmates defied all of these.
This was revealed by Officer in Charge of the Georgetown Prisons on Camp Street, Senior Superintendent, Kevin Pilgrim, at a press conference at the Ministry of the Presidency. Pilgrim was flanked by Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan, Director of Prisons, Carl Graham and Deputy Director of Prisons, Acting Senior Superintendent Gladwin Samuels.
Sixteen persons died on Thursday following unrest which resulted in fires being lit by the inmates between Wednesday and Thursday. Pilgrim said that the SOPs were unraveled as the situation progressed on Thursday morning when the Joint Services -backed prison authorities were transferring prisoners from the Capital A section of the prison, where the events unfolded the night before.
He said the situation resulted in the immediate action drill being followed. These included the application of prison rules or guidelines aimed at preventing a fire, riot or escapes.
Noting that the situation was under control on Thursday morning, Pilgrim told the media that in the overcrowded prison, persons are housed according to their classification. He explained that to relocate the prisoners after Wednesday night’s events would be a process.
“The capital division is for capital offenders and persons of high profile status, so we just can’t mix them in another division overnight”, he noted, adding that unlock and lockdown procedures were activated at the time. He said during the procedure, no prisoner is allowed to move unless it was an emergency situation.
Giving a breakdown of the events which led to the deaths of the prisoners, a visibly tired Pilgrim told the media conference that around 2 pm on Wednesday, the authorities conducted its monthly , mandatory Joint Services operations in which the unit targeted key areas within the various division of the prisons. He said the team searched the capital division, which houses capital offenders.
“Upon searching, we unearthed a number of prohibited items”, he said, and these included 19 mobile phones and a quantity of marijuana.
Pilgrim said the search lasted for two (2) hours and following the operation he undertook his debrief and completed his visit to the location. He said sometime later, Wednesday evening, he received a call and was asked to respond to disturbances within the Capital A Division of the prisons. Upon responding, he said he met the Capital A Division in a state of unrest as some inmates were participating in lighting mattresses.
Pilgrim said a total of nine (9) fires were set by the inmates in that section of the prison and according to him, through the assistance of the members of the Guyana Fire Service, the fires were extinguished.
Pilgrim said the situation returned to some degree of normalcy and some inmates were prompted to remain calm, since some were touting on the issue to continue.
“They were advised to address it in the appropriate channel; they were demanding to have back the illegal items and this was not done”, he explained. He said Thursday morning the prison commenced another Joint Services supported exercise to remove the prisoners from the Capital A building.
Noting that there was opposition and reluctance from the inmates, the officers worked in the face of heat and Graham added that missiles were being thrown by the inmates amid “very adverse” conditions and actions to ensure that the situation was controlled.
Pilgrim said yesterday morning’s exercise included moves to have the prisoners fed and searched. He described the situation at that time, which was shortly after 10 am as being “relatively calm, but as a result of promptings from the general prison population and heckling,it would have caused it to go further”.
In response to reports that persons were beaten, Pilgrim refuted such allegations, and he noted that during the rescue efforts persons were sent to the infirmary at the prison. He said if the medical department of the prison cannot handle the situation, the persons would be referred to the hospital.
In addition, he noted that there is a medical officer at the prison, including a medex and also a doctor. The medical officer would visit the scene and make an assessment, he added.
As regards shots being fired, Pilgrim said the SOPs of the prison allow for this course of action in certain eventualities and he noted that a single shot was fired yesterday morning. Questioned on the ability of prisoners to smuggle prohibited items such as mobile phones into the prison, Pilgrim noted that “once there is a will there is a way”.
He said prisoners would rant boldly that contact with their relatives is important. He said that the prison rules provide for two phone calls for a remand prisoner per week but he noted that the inmates will clearly state that this is inadequate and they would” do whatever they can to make this (make phone calls) happen”.
Asked whether the inmates could have colluded with prison staff, Pilgrim said he would not deny that there are corrupt officers, however, he noted that as administrators, the prison conduct searches such as what occurred on Wednesday and also yesterday, and daily searches.
He said the prison is scoured manually and as a result persons may breach the rules unknown to staff. He added too that parcels are sometimes hurled over the fence and this has resulted in ranks being placed outside of the walls of the prison.
The ill-fated Capital A division houses prisoners who are committed to stand trial and others who are remanded for various offences. The population of that division was listed as 68 yesterday.
As regards reassurance that the situation was under control yesterday, Graham said that the prison is under the command of Pilgrim with support of the entire Joint Services units. ”Senior ranks are on the ground”, he said.