By any measure the loss of 17 lives at one time is a disaster of monumental proportions and requiring the most rigorous examination and inquiry. The stakes are even higher considering the prison rebellion that resulted in the immolation of the 17 men and the allegations that strike at two branches of government as it relates to conditions in the jail and the length of time it is taking for the courts to hear cases. Therefore, it is vitally important that the most conducive conditions as possible are created for the taking of evidence, the developing of recommendations and the drawing of conclusions.
To its credit, the government has moved swiftly to appoint a Commission of Inquiry and set a demanding timeframe for the submission of the report and recommendations. It has however made a serious blunder in the composing of the Commission which can detract significantly from its work.
Notwithstanding his long service to the prison system, the former Head of the Prison Service Mr Dale Erskine should not be a Commissioner.
Having worked in the prison service for over 30 years, Mr Erskine proceeded on pre-retirement leave in October of 2013. It will strain credulity to believe that Mr Erskine can dispassionately assess this tragedy in the framework of any failings or shortcomings of the senior leadership of the prison service and offer critical commentary and findings given his professional relationship with these very people. It is noteworthy that it has been less than three years since Mr Erskine departed the upper echelons of the prison service.
Even more serious, however, is the glaring reality that the CoI will be examining the circumstances and conditions that led to a significant number of inmates becoming incensed on March 3rd to the extent that they set fires and broke walls resulting in 17 of them losing their lives. The conditions which sparked the revolt by the prisoners did not begin today or yesterday. They had their genesis in decades of deteriorated facilities, overcrowding, inhuman treatment and corruption within the prison service. These maladies have featured prominently for years and were quite pronounced under the tenure of Mr Erskine. These conditions persisted and on Thursday they conspired to deliver the worst such tragedy the prison system has ever seen.
This CoI would be expected to hear testimony from prisoners, their families and prison officers. It is more than likely that some of these persons may not feel comfortable being deposed before Mr Erskine. Questions will naturally arise about the poor fire-fighting capacity within the prison and why after decades it remains antiquated and was unable to do an adequate job. The dilemma of lax prison security and how this enabled 19 cell phones to get into the establishment will also be raised at the hearing. These questions will undoubtedly home in on the period during which Mr Erskine was in charge of the prison.
As a result, Mr Erskine cannot do justice to the role of commissioner as he has been part of its problematic administration and can therefore not offer impartial commentary. Mr Erskine was also the Director of Prisons at the time of that other great tragedy in 2002 – the escape of five armed men from the Camp Street prison into the general populace leading to months of wanton destruction, murders and robberies. In a well-ordered society, Mr Erskine would have had to tender his resignation or he would have been fired as a result of this single incident. One would have also thought that the report on the 2002 prison break would have been employed by the prison authorities to ensure that Thursday’s conflagration couldn’t occur.
Further, over the period that Mr Erskine was in charge of the Georgetown Prison there were numerous complaints about conditions at various points leading to disturbances including the setting of fires, the regular mounting of the roof of the institution by protesting prisoners etc. These are all events that Mr Erskine would have had to provide answers on. In this light it is ill-advised for Mr Erskine to be on this panel and he should be withdrawn or withdraw of his own volition.
The APNU+AFC government is quickly finding out that it has to rise faster to challenges or they can spin rapidly out of control. Given all that it had known about the dire conditions in the Camp Street prison, did the administration initiate serious steps over the nine months it has been in office to mitigate some of these?