Prison debacle Editorial
Stabroek News
June 11, 2002

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"The escape, in our view could have been avoided if the Prison Authorities had taken all security measures necessary to ensure that the five (5) escapees, who are all high profile prisoners, were locked in their respective areas and closely monitored, rather than permitting, at least one of them (Shawn Brown), to play games and to walk freely in a restricted area of the Prison area (between the No.2 and No.3 gates)."

This quote is taken from page 12 of the report of the Commission of Enquiry into the February 23 jailbreak which event is now the reference point for the gross state of insecurity the country is presently experiencing.

It is one of the numerous passages throughout the report that leads the reader to fear for the security of the capital city were nothing done to rein in the disorder at the Camp Street Prison and to wonder whether it was indeed the prisoners who were effectively running the facility up to February 23.

The findings of the Kennard Commission of Enquiry are a startling indictment of the administration of the Camp Street prison from top to bottom and there should be no hesitation in implementing wholesale personnel changes immediately while plans are made for relocating high profile prisoners to an area where their possible escape would do less harm. As argued in the report, "The only purpose for which the present prison can be effectively used is as a Remand Centre and to house prisoners who are serving very short sentences."

From the report, it is evident that there was a well constructed plan by the five men: Dale Moore, Andrew Douglas, Shawn Browne, Mark Fraser, and Troy Anthony Dick to escape on Mashramani Day when they believed that the prison authorities would be less vigilant. What is even more disturbing is that they may have been actively aided by other prisoners and even prison officers.

The fateful day began with Director of Prisons, Dale Erskine, telling the Officer-in-Charge Colin Howard of the need to be especially careful that day. When asked by the enquiry what prompted his warning, Erskine said that he had a "gut feeling". Not only was this warning from the director not heeded, a truly laissez-aller approach was adopted for the rest of the day up to the point of the actual breakout.

There was no armed sentry placed near the front gate even though this was required and prudent as flight over the fence of the compound was nigh impossible because it had been made more secure due to previous escapes.

When Brown should have been incarcerated in the Self Support Division (even though he shouldn’t even have been there in the first place) he was seen near the gate where Prison Officer Roxanne Whinfield, who the report said he subsequently shot and seriously injured, was stationed. On the other front, Moore and another escapee had manoeuvred through a different gate and had attacked and fatally stabbed Prison Officer Troy Williams with knives (not even sharpened toothbrushes?)

Simultaneously, another crucial event occurred. Whinfield opened a gate for a prisoner who had wanted to get back into the prison yard at that specific point (this person should be investigated as a possible planning accomplice.) Brown then seized the opportunity of this opening, shot Whinfield and then struggled with another officer for the keys to the front gate, got it, opened it and fled with Moore. Around the same time, Douglas was seen squeezing through a "pigeon hole" which should have been sealed while Fraser and Dick jumped from the top of the Dietary (Stores) into the area between the No.2 (now open) and No.3 gates and through the front gate. The prisoners ran south into Camp Street, west into D’Urban Street, south into George Street where they commandeered a car and hijacked another after the first gave trouble. Thereafter, they sped up to Turkeyen/Sophia and escaped into nearby fields, a disastrous sequence of events that the Prison Service is fully responsible for.

There were numerous infractions of established prison rules that allowed the escapees privileges that no doubt aided them in their enterprise.

In the words of the enquiry, Brown seemed to be a privileged prisoner and had even been selected at one time as an orderly when he was clearly unfit for the post. Moore and Brown were kept in the Self Support Division when they were not supposed to be and this no doubt provided the foundation for the escape as it positioned Brown near to the No.2 gate.

Brown, Moore and Douglas were seen consorting with each other and even though they were high profile prisoners they were placed in adjoining cells though this is prohibited under prison rules.

Where a high profile prisoner is spotted in an unauthorised area, prison regulations require that he immediately be questioned and a report made to the duty officer. This was not done in Brown’s case.

Then there was the case of the gun which Brown had. A Senior Superintendent of Police at the Brickdam Police Station had reported to the Director of Prisons on 28th January, 2002 - just weeks before the breakout - that a report had been received that a weapon had been thrown over the prison fence for Douglas. A 90-minute search followed but no gun was found. The enquiry believed that the gun was the cinch. If an armed sentry had been at the front gate the escapees would have likely been deterred without a gun. The gun empowered their flight and is therefore critical. The enquiry slammed the 90-minute search for the gun as inadequate and improperly handled by the police and prisons. Moreover, the enquiry floated the possibility that the gun had been provided to Brown by a prison officer. This matter needs exhaustive investigation by both the police and prison authorities. Why has nothing been heard of it even though there is sufficient information to track down?

Beyond this, there were operational defects. On-duty prison staff should not have taken part in the Mashramani Day celebration, proper communication was lacking, the observation post did not have a clear view of key areas, officers were improperly deployed, only female officers were in certain vital positions, panic overtook the officers when the escape was launched and they were unsure of what to do.

The rampage and blood spilling caused by this escape continues unabated. It is a gut-wrenching lesson that there must be no recurrence particularly since the February 23 flight had been preceded by other serious breakdowns in prison management.

Urgent action is required. A thorough shake-up is required in prison personnel and high-risk prisoners have to be moved to some other locale. If it is believed that the Prison Service cannot attract the requisite skills to safely keep dangerous prisoners, maybe the time has arrived for the contracting out of this service to others.

While the Prison Service has direct responsibility for the breakout, the Ministry of Home Affairs cannot be free of blame. There was too much flouting of the prison rules and compromising of security at Camp Street for it not to have known. If it didn’t, that is just as bad.