By Shemuel Fanfair
On the final day of hearings at the Commission of Inquiry into the deadly Camp Street prison riot, the Attorney representing the Joint Services, Selwyn Pieters posited that those who perished during the unrest were responsible for their own deaths.
These views were expressed in his closing arguments to the Commission and he also maintained that prison officers and Guyana Fire Service members acted within the Standard Operating Procedures and were not negligent at any point in time.
Pieters pointed to the testimony of one of the Assistant Superintendents of Prisons who was “pained” in giving his testimony to the CoI as he “could not make sense of it”.
“Why people with any sort of rational thought of thinking would block a door to their rescue and continue to light fires … the inmates are the ones that lit that fire and continued to poke the officers [and] assault the officers in their efforts to get them out of there and to extract them from that unit. They significantly played a role in their death,” Pieters stated.
He also noted that if the Prison Service had the resources and adequate fire prevention equipment, perhaps the lives of the prisoners could have been saved.
“If they had the equipment, the resources and the manpower to dominate that living unit, perhaps they could have gone in; it would have been a hand-to-hand battle with inmates…but with what they had, they did the best that they could under those circumstances,” the Attorney observed.
Pieters also told the Commission that Government should invest in the construction of a new prison, since many sections of the present structure were “historic relics”.
“Those wooden buildings had their place… [and] are not places to house prisoners. Governments do not want to hear that they need to pump money into prisons … but it is appropriate that Government pump money into the prison,” the Joint Services Attorney further observed.
Earlier, Pieters pointed to several challenges that exist within the prison system. He observed that inadequate facilities, rising gangs and organised crime, overcrowding and slothfulness in prison sentencing were all contributory factors to the events that caused the rioting.
He postulated that it was the extraction of prisoner Collis Collinson that led to much of the violence surrounding the fatal fire. He pointed out to the Commission that Collinson’s testimony should be discredited as he failed to admit that he did possess a mobile phone despite confirming that he regularly updated an active social media account.
The Attorney also petitioned Commissioners to observe the fact that while inmate Desmond James confessed that prisoners did light the mattresses, he also noted that he did not see lighters, cigarettes or matches. Pieters reasoned that this was sufficient basis for the credibility of this witness to be damaged.
While referencing that Deputy Director of Prisons Gladwin Samuels noted contraband was a “multimillion-dollar business” at the prison, the Attorney said special attention should be paid to Officer-in-Charge of the Georgetown Prison, Superintendent Kevin Pilgrim who testified that the old structure “allows for items to be hidden”. Pilgrim was the officer who had noted that “intimidation” was the order of the day as prisoners became more aggressive and continued to threaten wardens after the riots had concluded.
Pieters also pointed out that on the day of the fire, prison officers did observe the stipulations in the Fire Prevention Act, but that officers needed breathing apparatus and other fire-fighting equipment. He noted that the hole inmates created at Capital B was a “fatal funnel” since it would have been a “suicide mission” for prison officers to enter.
Before thanking the Commission for allowing him to participate, Pieters told Commissioners that it was necessary for prison officers to be paid better salaries and allowances. The hearing ended without presentations from the Attorneys who represented the interest of the inmates as they were all absent.
The Commission has until the end of this month to submit the report on its findings.