Camp St Prison tightens security for Mash Day
Erskine says ‘volcano’ is quiet By Kim Lucas
Stabroek News
February 23, 2003

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There are always threats of escape from a penal facility, but with increased security measures in place at the Camp Street Prison for today, Director of Prisons Dale Erskine is confident that there would not be a recurrence of last year’s jailbreak.

“We basically have collaboration with other joint services in terms of ensuring that methods are in place... There is a plan for ensuring that the city is well secured during Mash and the prison falls into that lot,” Erskine told Stabroek News on Friday.

On February 23, last year, celebration turned into terror, when five men - Andrew Douglas, Dale Moore, Shawn Brown, Troy Dick and Mark Fraser - blasted their way out of the Camp Street jail. One prison officer, Troy Williams, was stabbed to death and another, Roxanne Winfield, was shot in the face. Today, one year after, Winfield, a mother of two, is bed-ridden and cannot speak.

In the past year close to 200 persons were slain, including 29 policemen and three of the five escapees (Douglas, Fraser and Moore). There was also an upsurge in robberies, shooting incidents and rapes nationwide. Many people were forced to flee their homes, especially those living on the lower East Coast Demerara.

Speaking to Stabroek News on Friday, Erskine said last year’s jailbreak had made his officers more vigilant. At the same time, he said while the breakout presented the catalyst for the crime wave it was not necessarily the cause.

“Certainly the officers are far more professional in the way they deal with prisoners... [They have] a different focus, so to speak [and] they are more vigilant, more professional. Every day we work under the threat that there is an escape pending somewhere. [There are] smiling faces and a man has it in his mind that he would jump the wall... you have to live with that on a day to day basis. Having regard for what happened last February 23, we will ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.

All the things that went wrong on that day, we will ensure that they don’t go wrong this year. We will strengthen our spirit, the most important thing is the officers’ commitment.

Knowing that something went wrong on that day, and knowing the way in which it was done, now we are far more guarded against such things happening.”

Following the jailbreak, Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj commissioned an inquiry to look into issues of culpability and causes. A report was completed by a board chaired by former Chancellor of the Judiciary Cecil Kennard and handed over on June 3. Among the 41 recommendations put forward to remedy the situation were: a change in top management, relieving the Officer-in- Charge of his responsibilities because of “weak leadership,” early retirement for two of the Chief Prison Officers on duty that day (it was found that they were aware of irregularities in the prison and did not take remedial action), the establishment of a prison inspectorate to investigate complaints, the reduction of the officer-to-prisoner ratio to allow for recruitment of more staff, random searches of prison officers, placing a walk through and extra scanner at the front gate, dressing high profile prisoners in special colours and training for all prison officers.

Erskine said many of the recommendations, especially those that dealt with security measures, have now been implemented. But there has not been a significant staff change, since it would have meant replacing experienced personnel in a system that lacked the necessary human resources. This newspaper had reported that a number of officers were sent on special leave, but Erskine denied this was ever done.

“The officer in charge is no longer at the Georgetown Prison. He is now attached to prison headquarters, but no officer was sent on special leave... they were enjoying their vacation leave at the time and after their vacation, they resumed duties at different locations.”

Since then, there has been an increase of staff, with a few officers leaving the job. According to Erskine, immediately after the jailbreak, a number of persons applied to work with the Prison Service. He said last year they enjoyed one of the highest staff strengths in years.

What went wrong?

One of the observations after the incident was that none of the security cameras manning the prison were able to secure footage of the jailbreak, although they were working at the time. It was found that a Mash banner had blocked one of the cameras.

“It is not 50 cameras that we have to pinpoint all the little areas within the prison. Where it [the escape] happened, only one camera was there and there is where the cloth was blocking...”

The Board of Inquiry also found that prison officers were “too friendly” with the inmates and that that might have contributed to the lax security at the jail last year Mash Day. But Erskine pointed out that a relationship of co-operation was encouraged and not one with a wood and whip.

“In prisons... relationships would exist one way or the other because we have to live in a co-operative sort of environment... It is through influence and through our leadership ability... [that we] manage that prison. It is not by brute force and ignorance. It is the way in which we influence prisoners to follow our example, how we do things in the prison. And since then I think officers have been holding their fort and it has been kind of quiet within the prisons. A prison has a way like a volcano - erupt and subside for some time. It might erupt another 10 years from now... but right now it is very quiet, not because the prisoners want to be quiet, [but] because we are ensuring that they are quiet. The ministry has also given us a lot of resources... There is much more to be done, but I think it has to be done in stages,” the officer told this newspaper.

Winfield still a prison officer

Although she is incapacitated following the attack one year ago, Roxanne Winfield still remains in the employ of the Guyana Prison Service, Erskine said. And her colleagues continue to support her in every way.

Stabroek News was unable to reach her relatives, but Erskine offered this account: “Roxanne is doing much better over the last few months. She had been feeding through her stomach and now, she is feeding through her mouth. She is swallowing.

She recognizes people, communicates... she can’t walk, can’t speak also, but she makes signs. I think she is progressing satisfactorily. We are trying to see what more can be done for her at the ministerial level and at the health ministry level. She is still a member of staff and receiving her salary.

“If there is something wrong, we provide her transportation. Whenever she has to go to the doctor, we go for her, take her [and] bring her back. [In terms of] medical expenses, we liaison with NIS and get things going. The government paid all her expenses for Trinidad... and at Christmas time, each staff donated some money totalling about $320,000, which we have in trust so that the family can access.

So whenever they want, they can come and collect some money to buy some things for her.

There is no big red tape... just ensuring that there is some control of it,” Erskine explained.

In the case of Troy Williams, the director said the government is “looking” at giving his survivors a $1M payment.

“They [Williams’ relatives] are asking to be paid a lump sum million dollars... It has been put to the minister and he is looking at it.”

Touching on the crime situation that has plagued the country for the past year, the Director of Prisons said: “Something is fuelling it out there... even when the men died [Douglas, Moore and Fraser], the crime continued. There is something fuelling it [and] maybe only a socio-psychologist or criminologist can explain why it is continuing.”

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