By Ravin Singh
One day after a tragedy claimed the lives of 17 inmates at the Georgetown Prison, Government has announced the launch of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate the circumstances that led to the deadly riot.
On Thursday last, 17 inmates at the Camp Street Prison, Georgetown, were roasted to death in a fire which 22 of them were allegedly responsible for starting. The remaining five were said to have suffered serious injuries.
And while the situation appeared to have been diffused that afternoon, Friday morning proved otherwise. Seven additional inmates and five prison officers were rushed to the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) during the morning hours for medical treatment following a standoff at the prison.
It was reported that approximately 06:15hrs, prisoners began to protest within the prison walls and set another fire to one of the buildings.
The fire was extinguished but some of the prisoners managed to gain access to the yard of the penitentiary and even the top of the roof. Police were forced to use tear gas in an effort to restrain them and get them out of the Capital A section of the penitentiary. Some of the prisoners had surrendered.
Not too long after, some of the inmates at the facility had requested that Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan meet with them to give them a hearing.
This was subsequently done, and both Ramjattan and Minister of State Joseph Harmon met with the inmates at the Reception Hall for prison officers. The hall is located just opposite the prison.
COMMITMENTS AND COMPLAINTS
Ramjattan had committed to meeting some of the basic needs of prisoners while noting that the complaints made by them may very well have credibility. Some of the issues included grievances with the conditions of the prisons, some of the officers of the prison, lengthy detention periods, meals and the posture of certain magistrates and judges.
And staying true to his commitment to the inmates, the Minister at a press conference on Friday afternoon held at his Brickdam office announced the establishment of a CoI which will commence work on March 7.
“In keeping with the promise that we will act almost instantaneously, we actually did and we managed to get a number of things done. The first is the development of Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to enquire into the disturbances and resultant deaths of 17 prisoners,” Minister Ramjattan said.
He revealed that the Commissioners identified were former Justice James Patterson who will Chair the Commission, Merle Mendonca of the Guyana Human Rights Association and former Director of Prisons Dale Erskine.
The Commission has been constituted “to enquire into all the circumstances surrounding the death of 17 prisoners from the Camp Street Prison, Georgetown on the morning of Thursday 3rd March, 2016, to report the findings and conclusions to the Minister of Public Security and to make recommendations on any action that should be taken to avoid a recurrence”.
The Commission would seek to find out the circumstances and conditions that led to the disturbances on the morning of the 3rd of March, 2016 that resulted in the death of 17 prisoners and any other subsequent disturbances at the Camp Street Prisons, Georgetown; inquire into the nature of all injuries sustained by the prisoners during the disturbances on the morning of the 3rd of March, 2016 and any other subsequent disturbances; determine whether the conduct of the staff of the Guyana Prison Service who were on duty on the morning of the 3rd of March, 2016 and thereafter was in conformity with the Standard Operating Procedures of the Guyana Prisons Service; and determine whether the deaths of the 17 prisoners was as a result of the negligence, abandonment of duty, disregard for instruction, inaction of the prison officers who were on duty on the night of the 2nd of March, 2016 and the morning of March 3, 2016.
And while there is no definitive life-span of the Commission, Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, who was also present at the press conference, noted that the first report should be submitted by March 15. Should there be need for extension, he noted that this should be granted by way of application to the minister.
Meanwhile, weighing in on the concerns of the prisoners, Ramjattan noted that efforts will be made at the ministerial level to immediately have the telephone calls to relatives, by inmates, improved from two to four or five time per week. This is expected to take effect in a few weeks, given that there is need for the acquisition of more telephone lines.
Another concern which was raised by the prisoners was that of their meals. And according to the minister, indication has been made to the administration for meals need to be prepared and distributed on time.
He also commented on Government’s support for families of the victims, revealing that support will be extended to them through the Ministry of Social Protection.
Harmon interjected, offering that “We will support the families of the victims… We will give support for funeral arrangements and to the families even after this.”
As it relates to prisoners on remand, and the repeated calls for a speedier judicial process for persons incarcerated, the Security Minister told reporters that the matter was raised with Chancellor of Judiciary, Carl Singh, and he (Singh) is expected to meet Government early next week to have this addressed.
“So what we can say to the prisoners is that their concerns about long periods of incarceration will be addressed,” he assured the inmates.
Damages were also done to the correctional facility, and according to head of the Camp Street prison, Kevin Pilgrim, repairs have commenced. Additionally, he disclosed that since the incident, 47 young offenders were removed from the Camp Street prison and relocated to a similar facility at Timehri.