Five prisoners were up to early Monday morning still at large, after distracting prison wardens by setting the overcrowded Georgetown Prison ablaze , authorities said.
“The fire actually served as a distraction which resulted in the prison break. This is still to be confirmed,” Director of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels told a news briefing at the state-owned National Communications Network (NCN). He said the Duty Officer, who has all the information what transpired, was seriously injured and he was in no position to provide a briefing.
Fire fighters and security personnel are due to comb the scene to confirm that no one was burnt to death or there are more survivors.
He confirmed that prison officer Odinga Wayne Wickham died while receiving emergency treatment at the Georgetown Public Hospital. Two other prison officers, including Hubert Trim, are listed in a critical condition and three others were stable, he said. They sustained either chop or gunshot wounds.
Up to late Sunday night, there were no reports that prisoners died, but two of them who were taken out of the jail were shot while attempting to escape, he said.
He said the incident started in the strong-cell division and the wood prison/ condemned the decision.
Among the escapees are Royden Williams, who was sentenced to death for the Bartica and Lusignan massacres, and Uree Varswyck who has been committed to stand trial for a robbery-murder. The identities of the others were not immediately known. The Police Commissioner, Seelall Persaud said there might be more escapees, but so far they were aware of five.
He said in the days and hours leading up to the fire, there was no sign of unrest among the prisoners.
Public Security Minister, Khemraj Ramjattan said there was no evidence of a political motive behind the escape and destruction of the prison by fire, but that would not be ruled out by investigators. “Not as far as I know and I don’t think there might have been. That does not mean that that will be eliminated. In the process of investigating, we are going to check on that too,” he said when asked by Demerara Waves Online News.
Police Commissioner, Seelall Persaud said police in neighbouring Suriname have been informed to look out for the four prison escapees.
Authorities said the more than 1,000 prisons have been transported to the Lusignan Prison, East Coast Demerara and are in the open yard of a high-fenced area. “There have been some rogue elements who would have been transferred. However, efforts are being made to have those persons isolated but, as we speak, from reports on the ground the situation is stable,” the Prisons Director said.
The Minister said about 300 of the inmates would be moved by Monday to other prisons, but the remaining 700 would still need proper accommodation. “We have a big crisis on our hands,” he said, while ruling out the temporary housing of several them in schools because of the risk of the schools being burnt.
Although the nine wooden Georgetown Prison buildings have been gutted and others badly damaged, the Public Security Minister said it is likely that a remand facility would be constructed at Camp Street because it is the closest jail to all of the courts in Georgetown and Demerara.
A new prison could cost as GYD$6billion and would take three years, he said.
Fire Chief, Marlon Gentle said it was not until after one hour that fire fighters were able to gain entry to the prison compound where prisoners were armed with guns and other weapons.
Police shot at a car at Buxton after the driver saw the police road block, turned back and sped off. The Police Commissioner said the driver was unlicensed and the occupants are from Buxton, but they were unconnected to the prison break and fire.
The Public Security Minister could not have afforded to invest in some of the 40 recommendations that were made in a Commission of Inquiry Report into last year’s prison fire that claimed the lives of 16 inmates, because of the multi-billion dollar subsidy to the cash-strapped Guyana Sugar Corporation.
He, however, said government would now have to find the cash to rebuild a facility at the Georgetown Prison to house remand prisoners, release some of them who have been convicted for non-violent offences and reduce the bail for a number of the 593 on remand but could not afford it. About 200 others are on remand for murder. Ramjattan said the Chancellor of the Judiciary might also have to review the status of several of the inmates to ensure they have early trials.
About GYD$60 million have been already spent on night courts following last year’s fire that claimed the lives of more than one dozen inmates.