GUYANA – No assistance
Inmate says officers made no effort to free prisoners
GEORGETOWN –– Capital A Block inmate, Dwayne Lewis, who continued his testimony yesterday before the tribunal probing the circumstances of the deaths of 17 Camp Street prisoners, has submitted sworn statements that contrary to what is being portrayed, no efforts were made to free prisoners trapped in the burning cell block.
Lewis made these statements under questioning from Attorney-at-Law Dexter Todd. Todd made these queries after Lewis’ intense cross examination by Selwyn Pieters, legal representative of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and the Guyana Prison Service (GPS).
“[I was in there] for over an hour or two after the fire started,” Lewis said. “[During the fire] I was at the door calling for God.”
“While you were at the door calling for God,” Todd asked. “Did you see any officer, for example prison officer, fire, police, any officer in uniform making attempts to get to where you were?”
Lewis made it clear that he did not see any officers during that time, but that they were finally informed that the front door was open by a prisoner who appeared next to him on the catwalk. Lewis also denied seeing prisoners blocking other prisoners from leaving.
Todd then asked Lewis whether he saw any officers throwing tear gas into the cell. Lewis claimed to have seen two arms lobbing tear gas into the area, after which the smoke spread rapidly, rising to the ceiling.
Lewis stated that at this point he heard the now deceased Rayon Paddy shouting to the inmates to remain calm, stay as low as possible and breathe. He said that he complied with the instructions.
As Lewis recounted the horrific experience, his demeanor was of one in shock. He stated that at one point, he had left the side door, which was providing crucial fresh air in a bid to find water.
Finding that there was no water, Lewis recounted returning to find another inmate had occupied his “space”. He recalled forcibly pulling the prisoner away from his “space”, while smoke roiled around the room.
Lewis was asked bluntly by Todd whether there was a plot to burn down the Camp Street Prison. And just as bluntly, Lewis denied this.
Lewis also countered evidence from Pieters, which was admitted by Chairman of the COI, Retired Justice James Patterson on a concessionary basis after opposition from the Bar Association’s representative, Christopher Ram.
This evidence consisted of photographs Pieters claimed had been taken by a photographer who was present during the Commission’s tour of the Camp Street facility on Tuesday. The pictures purported to show the saw marks on the door, which Lewis claimed had been kept shut during his ordeal. Ram argued that the veracity of the photographs could not be proven and the evidence was thus inadmissible.
Pieters suggested that these pictures would attest to efforts made by prison officials to free those prisoners trapped inside. However, Lewis stated that the cuts were in fact made after the fire and that efforts were not made during the fire by officers to access the area and free the prisoners.
Lewis also made it clear that he did not see prisoners rioting or behaving in a disorderly manner. Lewis, who stated that he had been sleeping immediately before the blaze started, attested to only recognizing the blaze escalating after tear gas had been lobbed into the cell block.
However, Lewis’ credibility was put under the microscope by Pieters, who was clearly incredulous when Lewis stated that in his two-year stay at Camp Street prison, he had never noticed prisoners with contraband items such as phones, improvised weapons and illicit drugs. In fact, Lewis claimed to have only seen cell phones owned by prison officers.
Pieters sought to suggest that the irritation the prisoners claim to have experienced came from a reaction to the contents from the fire extinguisher, with mattresses which were being burned. Lewis denied this outright, stating that it was the tear gas.
Pieters also probed Lewis’ previous testimony about being illiterate in a bid to demonstrate that he was unreliable. Pieters cited claims made by prison officers that they had seen him writing on a blackboard, to contradict his testimony.
The attorney highlighted the fact that Lewis, as an Islamic orderly, was tasked with gathering prisoners together for Friday prayer. Pieters claimed that for one in such authority, it was a fair assumption that he was literate. Lewis denied this.
Retired Justice James Patterson also queried whether Lewis had signed any documents that were in the prison. After hesitating, he confirmed that he had, namely the log of those praying. This line of questioning ultimately ended in a stalemate, however, as Lewis maintained that he could not read or write.
Lewis also testified that the hole made in the wall dividing capital A from Capital B was for the prisoners to communicate. Cognizant of earlier queries made by Todd into whether there was a plot to burn down Camp Street prison, the Commission’s Counsel queried what the hole was made for.