Recommendations after '99 jailbreak not implemented
- Willems By Gitanjali Singh
Stabroek News
March 3, 2002

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Chairman of the 1999 jailbreak Board of Inquiry, Peter Willems, has debunked claims by Director of Prisons (DOP), Dale Erskine, that 95% [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] of the recommendations made by his team were implemented and argued that the most important of the recommendations were not.

In an invited comment in response to Erskine's comments in a Government Information Agency (GINA) release on Thursday, Willems said two guard towers were to be installed in the northeastern and southeastern corners of the prison and be equipped with skilled marksmen, not from the prison service.

Willems said only one tower was constructed and was not manned by a skilled marksman, but by female prison officers. He said if these towers were not properly manned, they would be used as an escape and argued that the recent break out via Camp Street highlighted the need for a third such tower at the north-western end of the prison to effectively guard the Camp Street entrance.

He said having skilled marksmen in these towers with appropriate weapons was the requirement of a normal medium-security prison, as they would be able to see what was happening at all times in the compound and along the fence. He also said there was supposed to be regular posting of ranks from the Tactical Services Unit at the corners outside the jail but this had been discontinued.

Willems argued that with the multi-coil razor wire on the perimeter fence, which the commission itself supervised and implemented, there was no escape route over the walls of the prison. The only escape route, he insisted, would be through the prison gates at Camp Street and D'Urban Street. He argued that skilled marksmen, aided with portable one-million candle power search lights at those two strategic points would have been in a position to monitor what was going on within the prison walls.

No-go zone

The commission, which also included Brigadier Michael Atherly, also advised that a "no-go" severe sanction zone be created and clearly demarcated. Willems said this was to be no less than ten feet from the perimeter fence and no prisoner, prison official or anyone could enter without the permission of the DOP or his representative on duty. This, Willems said, was not being implemented either. Persons entering this no-go zone were to be subject to immediate and severe sanction by the marksmen in the guard towers after a jointly agreed warning system was sounded.

Willems said it was recommended that all prison officers be trained and retrained in the systems that were standard in high-security prisons. This would have included profiling prison officers, having police clearance and other measures taken such as self-defence training with batons and hand to hand combat. This, Willems said, was to ensure that prison officers were capable and well trained and able to apply their training in a tactical situation.

The private businessman said the training was to be the responsibility of the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) as a joint operation to start immediately and to continue until an effective corps of prison officers could take over the continued training. However, none of this was done.

The Camp Street jail, Willems said, was considered by his team to be a high-risk penal institution where escapes would occur unless the emergency security steps were taken. The Board of Inquiry, he said, made these recommendations after seven sessions.

However, Willems said those recommendations implemented were under the board's supervision and insistence before the final report was submitted. He said prisoners were used to put in the multi-coil razor wire on the perimeter fence so that they would recognise the danger the fence posed to them. He said the iron spikes at the top of the perimeter fence were serviced to ensure that they functioned. He said the new floodlight system on the perimeter fence was implemented as well as the security cameras system. But he was not sure about the monitoring of these cameras and whether the high stools as recommended were installed to ensure that those monitoring the cameras did not fall asleep.

The prison communication centre was removed to a secure point on the upper floor of the prison. Willems said there was to be an immediate inspection and audit of the arms and ammunition of the prison and the securing of the armoury. However, this was only partly implemented.

Willems said the catch net to trap objects thrown over the wall had not been followed up to determine whether the system was functional. And among the other recommendations not implemented, Willems said, was for the Guyana Defence Force to be given the legal mandate to work with the police and the prison service to ensure that the perimeter fence guard towers were manned efficiently.

Prison uniform

Willems said it was stressed that prisoners had to be provided with some kind of uniform. He said that the board recommended that remand prisoners wear a bright coloured T-shirt or some sort of coloured armband. He said it was advised that no prisoner be allowed to leave his confinement without the clear method of identification. He also said that it was recommended that all civilians permitted into the prison on business or visits be given identification tags and these visits must be logged and recorded. None of these were acted on.

A very worrying issue also, Willems said, was the self-support system for remand prisoners. He pointed out that over 100 meals went into the prison daily and this system, the minister of Home Affairs was advised, needed to be reviewed urgently by the DOP. This was not acted on.

He said the preliminary report also raised concerns about the fraternising between prisoners and prison guards which did not bode well for a maximum-security prison, much less one that had over 900 prisoners and only 15 prison officers on a shift at any given time during the day, and fewer at night. He said the ratio of female officers to male prisoners was also an issue of concern. However, in neither case was this issue followed up properly.

That preliminary report to the Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj, had asked that the recommendations be implemented urgently. Willems said that the team spent $5 million and implemented some of the structures recommended. However, he said the key security concerns still had not been addressed as the gates still posed a threat to the security of the prison. He said he believed that a further $1 million could go a far way to put in place the physical structures necessary, while the joint services, cooperating together, would further enhance the security of the prison.

Willems said also that of concern to the team was that prisoners on remand for serious crimes were in the dormitory block with prisoners serving time for minor offences. He said dangerous prisoners could fraternise at will and plan as they wished.


The final report on the prison break of 1999, when Maxwell Melville called 'Lunkie', Keith Thomas called 'Egg Head', Henry Valenzuela and Justin Martin scaled the wall in John Street and escaped had found culpability on the part of prison officers in the escape.

Willems said he was convinced that there was some form of collusion in the recent break, as there were many similarities with the escape his team had probed. He questioned how the prisoners got through the inner gate to attack the female prison officers with the keys to the outer gate without other prison offices on duty noticing. He asked where were the self-support officers who had to be just a few feet away in the administration building.

As Willems explained, the inner gate was always locked and prisoners were allowed out and into the administration building adjacent to this gate to collect their meals or other items from relatives. However, the timing of the break was before the self-support system was activated at 11.00 am bringing into question how the inner gate was opened.

Willems said he was deeply concerned about this break as it should not have happened and would not have happened had the recommendations been implemented. He said that it now put at risk innocent citizens and all in the security forces. He was adamant that if army officers and policemen were used as marksmen, the break would not have been attempted.

He revealed that the final report his team submitted to Gajraj asked for the senior officer in the prison system to be sanctioned and for the officer-in-charge of the prison to be dismissed along with two other officers. He said one person was dismissed and the officer in charge was transferred. He said clear culpability was found, as well as collusion by prison officials. He noted that the alarm on the jailbreak was sounded long after the prisoners had escaped and security forces were directed to Parika, when the prisoners had made their way up the East Coast.

The commission of inquiry now appointed to probe the recent break out needs to look at the reports of the previous inquiry and not just look at culpability, Willems argued. He was adamant that if the necessary changes in the security system at Camp Street were not made yet another break would be attempted. It was just a matter of time, he insisted. He noted that the prison had been overcrowded for the last 20 years but this did not preclude the system to ensure effective security measures were taken.

Another recommendation by the board in 1999 was for the jail on Camp Street to be relocated to Lusignan but in the interim, harsh security measures would have to be implemented to ensure another break was not attempted. A single prisoner had escaped after the 1999 break, when no one had been monitoring the security cameras.

The other members of Willems' team were Derek Thompson, former permanent secretary in the Home Ministry, who prepared a dissenting report to the preliminary report of the team; Assistant Commissioner of Police, E Wills; Atherly; Social Worker, I. Goddard; and former prison officer, I. Nelson-Bynoe.