The Commission of Inquiry, COI, into the prison riots of March 3rd 2106 has been adjourned to accommodate the participation of the Guyana Bar Association.
It is a position that should be applauded but it confirms that Justice James Patterson, renowned legal mind and chairman of the commission began this inquiry with a very crucial blunder – that of taking depositions from the incarcerated population without legal representation – a misstep that is too elementary for the expected prowess of James Patterson.
This adds to the overwhelming opinion that the composition of this COI is too imperfect to be objective; so flagrantly flawed that it comes across as a political ruse conceived to give the appearance of government investigation into an atrocity that just could not be swept under the rug.
Justice Patterson’s decision to proceed with a three man panel was criticized from the inception because its members were seen as complicit in creating and operating a prison system that served as a playground for many of the officers whose sadism was topped only by their megalomania.
Dale Erskine, COI panel member, has committed offenses that are both vile and egregious. Many may recall the testimony of Principal Prison Officer Suzie Wong-Yip, who talked about the compounded overtime shifts that officers were forced to work with no meals or beverages leaving them dehydrated and hungry, creating a hardship that fueled the entrepreneurial spirit in prisoners who preyed on these wardens in their weakened state and sold them their snacks from behind bars….dramatic irony parallel to the shamefulness of how it came about.
Painting this picture gave us clearer understanding of Wong Yip’s simple analogy … the system is designed for trafficking; even Jesus and his angels would accept a bottle of juice when they are hungry or thirsty at work.
While some officers were compromising their professional integrity for staples like food and water because Erskine’s overseering never ventured into the basic requisites of duty, others were exacting extrajudicial punishment with devilish dedication on prisoners who were under their care, as wards of the state.
Indeed, some of the highlights of Dale Erskine’s tenure warrant him being placed on trial for the systemic sadism that thrived- rather flourished – under his directorship. As disgracefully glaring as they are, we have no record, penned or else, of him ever discussing prison brutality or suggesting ways to improve the dispensation of prisoner care or the administration of the system that he oversaw.
So, now that he has be selected to be part of a Commission convened for inquiring into the death of seventeen prisoners who died protesting inhumane conditions, we feel it is important for everyone to know some of the savagery that occurred under his watch – some of the barbarity that has never made it past the thick walls of cover up and secrecy that made many employees fear for their jobs and most inmates fear for their lives.
One of the incidents that that has never made it to a real inquiry is that of Prisoner Bailey, ward of Lusignan Prison in 2008. Bailey was beaten with ferocity and deliberacy by Officers David Shepherd and Anthony Francisco who finished the job by breaking both of his legs. Another prisoner, a former Guyana Defence Force Sergeant, Trotman, was ordered to build a bed frame and was told he was doing so because prisoner Bailey had walked on his bed frame and had fallen through causing both of his feet to be broken. This story was sold to Trotman by Officers Shepherd and Francisco to create evidence of why both of Bailey’s feet were broken, just in case he was ever summoned to testify that he had to rebuild the bed frame.
The matter was then investigated and reported to Erskine by Social Worker Sonia King and Asst. Superintendent Bandoo and we use the term ‘Investigate’ here mostly to describe the heading that the exercise fell under and not the actual process which was nothing but a procedural farce. Statements were concocted and put together in a folder eventually stamped ‘Closed” and sent to the now defunct lunch room turned file vault, where matters of this nature are housed.
Calvin Bailey, the other Bailey brother, had both hands broken in the Georgetown prison in 2014 by two prison officers, one of whom was Peter Barker. Calvin Bailey was held in the infirmary on a bed without a mattress, forcing him to have to maneuver his body out of discomfort with his broken hands.
Around 2010, prisoner Boodie, a nineteen year old male British citizen, was imprisoned in Mazaruni Prison for trafficking by swallowing cocaine pellets. A bag was placed over his head, covering his face, including nostrils and he was submerged, repeatedly, in water, as punishment which was more for entertainment. The complaint got to the British High Commission which flew in and escorted him out of Mazaruni to the Georgetown prison where he was held until trial.
Prisoner John Caesar was beaten by Asst. Supt. Guyandat in 2014 for refusing to lift ‘drinks cases’ after a concert.
And one of the most heinous offenses was the death of Edwin Niles who died in Public Hospital Georgetown from multiple injuries, including those sustained from sodomy with a mop stick by Prison Officer Gladwin Samuels who continued to be promoted and now enjoys the rank of Deputy Director of Prisons.
These are some of the headliners that mark the epoch of Dale Erskine and we would be remiss if we failed to mention subsidiary events like the routine pilfering of mess rations, the removal of building supplies, the assignment of prisoner work detail and the ‘loaning’ of sacks of cement from prison supply to prison officers.
Merle Mendonca, the other COI member, saw no wrong when she was actively visiting the prisons as part of the Visiting Committee. If she did, there is no record of the Guyana Human Rights Association going after cases that at are undeniably, unquestionably, irrefutably human rights violations. Merle Mendonca’s tenure was a bland, vanilla, eventless one which implies she saw nothing noteworthy during her tenure.
The premise is that Second Vice President Ramjattan meant well when he appointed the members of this Commission to look in to what could have caused seventeen prisoners, under the care of the state, to die in a fire while they were behind bars.
As an elected official whose office encompasses prison oversight the assumption is that he would have vetted the people he would chose for a COI, especially one that will examine reasons behind an occurrence that potentially places Guyana amongst those countries known for human rights atrocities.
But after looking at his picks, James Patterson, former Judge pulled out of years of retirement and dusted off for the occasion, Dale Erskine whose stewardship is mired in everything abhorrent including murder, and Merle Mendonca who failed to issue any citation to the Guyana Prison System as a violator of human rights, we have to wonder how serious Minister Ramjattan is about restoring the humanitarian element to our prison system and rehabilitating an institutional culture that tarnishes us on the world’s stage.
We’re already appalled that the prisoners’ families were offered a paltry 100 thousand dollars for funeral expenses, just a quarter of the cheapest funeral which is 400 thousand. Maybe the expectation is that families bury just a quarter of their loved one.
President Granger has long said that in spite of his appointment of officials to offices that he expects them to function in to the best of their ability, the ultimate responsibility for administrative execution orderly state affairs lies with him.
We are, therefore, asking the President to look in to what are obvious discrepancies in caliber and character of these COI members who are tasked with looking in to the deaths people who were under state care with the hope of fairly investigating cause and proposing resolution.
We hope that the COI remains suspended until he consults with Minister Ramjattan and other members of the Guyana Bar Association to put some credibility into this exercise that is tasked with restoring a major part of the country’s image.