Sixteen inmates stage prison roof protest

By Samantha Alleyne
Stabroek News
July 13, 2001

Sixteen inmates yesterday flooded onto the roof of the Georgetown Prisons to protest conditions there, raising concerns again about security at the facility smack in the middle of the capital.

They spent three and a half hours on the roof, leaving on the stroke of noon and signalling to the assemblage below that the entertainment was over. It was the latest in a long series of such escapades on the roof by lone prisoners or small groups but never 16 at a time. This latest incident was attributed to too few guards on this particular wing.

The prisoners - facing D'Urban Street - protested the "inhuman" conditions of the prison, the length of time some of them have been awaiting trial and the brutality they said they faced at the hands of the prison wardens.

The police were out in their numbers to keep the large crowd on hand in order.

The prisoners who climbed to the roof were: Delon George, who has been on remand since 1998 for two counts of murder committed on a taxi driver and a gas station owner; Yohan Hunte, charged with simple larceny last year; Ryan Rodrigues, who said he is serving ten years for manslaughter; Randy Barrat, who has served 8 of a 24-year rape sentence; Chris Persaud, on remand for murder; Ray Peters, serving three years for simple larceny; Navindra Singh, who has served five years of a 20-year sentence for manslaughter; Andrew Douglas, who has been on remand for the past 15 months for a spate of robberies; Jeffrey Edwards, serving 25 years for robbery under arms; Leslie Conway, who was sentenced to ten years for robbery with violence; Somal Dial, serving an eight-year sentence for robbery under arms; Sherwin Saul, who was given eight years with eight strokes for robbery under arms; Bowan, serving ten years for robbery under arms; Fenton Tyrell, who is doing life for rape; Gary Moses, whose preliminary inquiry on one of two murder charges is still in progress while he is waiting to be tried in the High Court for the other; and Roy Mc Donald.

Concerns have been once again raised over the ease with which prisoners gained access to the roof and the fact that so many of them found a way to get there without being noticed.

One onlooker pointed out that there was a guard hut on the same side of the prison the prisoners were found and wondered what the guard was doing at the time.

A source close to the prison yesterday told Stabroek News that the D'Urban Street wing of the prison, where the 16 prisoners had been held, was supposed to be manned by five prison guards, but because the prison was short of staff there was only one guard on duty.

Numerous efforts to solicit a comment from Home Affairs Minister, Ronald Gajraj, or his Permanent Secretary, Randolph Williams, on the situation proved futile. Every time this newspaper attempted to make contact, the minister was said to be in a meeting and could not take the call. Williams was out and when he returned he was in a meeting with his minister.

The prisoners complained about being brutalised by the wardens and not getting proper food to eat. Another grievance was that they were not taken to see the doctor unless they were really ill and could not move. The prisoners contended that they were very peaceful and argued that in other countries if prisoners were treated in the manner they were treated there would be a riot.

They questioned how they could be rehabilitated when they were being treated in that manner and not being allowed to utilise their skills.

The prisoners alleged that an inmate was beaten the night before and his bloodied mattress and sheet were still lying in his cell.

When this newspaper made contact with Director of Prisons Dale Erskine late yesterday afternoon he said that most of the issues raised by the prisoners were blatant lies with no foundation.

Erskine said a few of the prisoners might have had genuine concerns, but most of them just joined the "bandwagon." He further suggested that a few might have even been forced onto the roof.

The prison director said while there might have been a few incidents, the prison officials did their best. Erskine said that the officials were tightening control of the prison and this was being met with resistance from the same prisoners and might have caused most of them to move to the roof.

He said that the night before there was an incident which involved an inmate and some of the prisoners thought he might have been beaten by the wardens but that was not so. This newspaper understands that the inmate, after physically assaulting a prison warden, slit his wrists and fainted. Upon seeing the wardens fetching the unconscious prisoner to the infirmary inmates became enraged and created a ruckus resulting in the 16 climbing to the roof yesterday.

Erskine noted out that the prisoners were cut off from the world and the prison wardens were the only persons they saw daily and as a result they took out their frustrations on the officials.

The director said while officials were trying to keep the prisoners off the roof they were very smart and would find ways to circumvent this.

He confirmed that the block from which the prisoners gained access to the roof was supposed to be manned by five guards but did not have this number at the time. The block was described as a special "watch area".

He acknowledged that they would have to find a way to deal with the numerous problems and said that authorities were working on it and that this included the training of staff members. He added that some staff members might overstep the line, but pointed out that most of them are young and untrained, coupled with the fact that the prison was grossly understaffed.

According to him, the prisoners made their way to the roof during their morning eating hours and even though other inmates might have seen them they would not have alerted the officials.

While sitting on the roof the prisoners said they were not leaving until they saw someone in authority. This has been the usual cry of most prisoners on the roof but they always left disappointed at not seeing the desired persons, which mostly included Gajraj, the attorney general or President Bharrat Jagdeo.

One prisoner, Gary Moses, threatened to burn down the prison if their grievances were not addressed. While on the roof the prisoners had bottles of water to quench their thirst.

Many were surprised when the prisoners removed a dislodged galvanised sheet from the roof and made their way back into the prison. A warden's baton, which they had in their possession was apparently used to aid them in dislodging the sheet.

Earlier this month the United Kingdom Prison Reform Team, headed by Alastair Papps, which spent 18 months assisting Erskine in a thorough review of the Prison Service had found that Guyana's prisons continued to be overcrowded and hampered by a system that failed to offer adequate alternatives to incarceration. As such it had recommended the setting up of a high level Commission on Criminal Justice.

Other main problems the team found were: poor conditions for staff and prisoners; perceived infringement of basic human rights and minimal scope for constructive work with prisoners to help them to resettle on release.

The prison is severely overcrowded with its current population being 815 when it was intended for around 500.