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Prisons execs told of jail break plan

Published: 
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Minutes six months before shows...
Sterling Stewart

Official minutes from an executive meeting which took place at the Prison’s Administration Building, Phillip Street, Port-of-Spain, on January 27, 2015, has revealed that prisons officials were aware of plans for a jail break by inmates at the Port-of-Spain prison. The T&T Guardian has in its possession a copy of the minutes. But while the executives were aware of the escape plan, they failed to put security measures in place to prevent it or to alert the authorities. 

Six months later, on July 24, people in the city were on edge after the prison break actually took place. With handguns and a grenade, three men broke free from Port-of-Spain prison in a dramatic episode that left a police officer murdered, a prisons officer wounded, two of the escapees killed, and another one on the run for hours before being killed by a notorious gang in Laventille. Three prisons officers were later suspended. In the minutes, under paragraph 4.0 labelled Security, subheading the ‘Alleged Escape Plan’, it was revealed that Assistant Commissioner (William) Alexander reported that a phone call was received which indicated that four inmates were planning to escape in a car at the car park.

According to the minutes, “Mr Alexander reported that a phone call received by the gate-keeper POSP indicated that four inmates are planning to escape in a car at the car park.

“He added that collaboration with ex-agencies suggested that the call came from within the prison, a phone was seized and being checked.”

The document revealed that senior officers who attended the meeting included former prisons commissioner Conrad Barrow, deputy commissioners Ronald Morgan and Sterling Stewart (now commissioner), assistant commissioners William Alexander, Michael Walker, Cecil Duke and Chander Sinanan, and senior superintendents Gerard Wilson, Dane Clarke, Thomas Espinoza, Fize Khan and Dennis Pulchan.

There was no note or mention in the minutes of what measures they intended to put in place to deal with the possible jail break.

However, following the jail break, three prisons officers were suspended—Lancelot Duntin, Mervyn Pierre and Lovell Wolfe. The men are accused of discrediting the reputation of the Prison Service by failing to act promptly on instructions contributing to the escape of the men, plus the shooting death of police officer PC Sherman Maynard who responded to the jail break.

And spearheading the investigation is Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Dennis Pulchan, one of the executives who was present at the January 27 meeting in which the escape plan was discussed.

When told about the document, the Prisons Officers’ Association expressed disgust over the circumstances and called for an investigation into why the executives failed to act even though they had the relevant information.

General Secretary of the Prisons Officers’ Association (POA) Gerard Gordon said he was very surprised to hear about the minutes.

One of the officers, who spoke to the T&T Guardian on condition of anonymity, said that even though senior officials were aware of the plan they did not discuss this with the junior officers on duty at the prison.

“Junior officers were not made aware of it, including the ones who were suspended,” one officer said.

Stewart: Prisons probe completed, sent to Public Service Commission

Prisons Commissioner Sterling Stewart said the investigation by the Prison Service has been completed and was forwarded to the Public Service Commission.

He said he did not have any information on the police investigation or where it had reached.

“A decision was already made and a decision taken. This is a criminal matter and anyone culpable will face the full brunt of the law and what is revealed,” he said. 

When asked about the executive’s discussion on the escape, Stewart said: “We keep executive meetings all the time and any information we come across we discuss.” 

He said the executive will address any information as a concern. 

“There will always be talk or rumors of an escape or threat to officers on hit list. All of this would happen and if we have information we have to investigate to know its credibility. We are dealing with a high volatile environment and we will continue to review the evidence base to treat with the situation. Anyone would want to escape from the prison,” he said. 

Dillion: Prisons have to answer that

National Security Minister Edmund Dillon said he did not have any updates on the police investigation which started eight months ago. “If you have information on that, I would appreciate that and if they knew about it,” he said. When asked why nothing was done by the prisons executive who had the information, Dillon said: “I don’t know, they have to answer that.”

What took place

Last week, prisons sources said the three suspended men were only in “charge” that day and were in no way near the escapees who were in the visiting room. 

A statement taken from a prisons officer, sources said, stated that around 12.05 pm on July 27, an inmate warned senior prisons officers that the two men were “planning something.”

“In the prison, if a prisoner give you information on something you take it serious,” the officer said.

Prisons officers said that about 20 minutes later, around 12.25 pm, one of the suspended officers received a call warning them that two of the prisoners—Hassan Atwell and Christopher ‘Monster’ Selby should not be together in the visiting room. But it was “already too late and both of the men were down there already. They did not even give a reason.

“We can’t just stop a man from having his visit. We were thinking it must be some fight between the inmates or maybe they want to stab somebody. We were not looking for a gun or escape,” the officer said.

Another officer said, “The prisons officers who were to search the men are still on duty and unaccountable.” 

Statements taken from eyewitnesses, including inmates, revealed that an inmate saw the escapees brandishing firearms while inside the prison, one of the officers said. 

“The men (escapees) were waiting in the visiting area and did not get the canteen bag. So they did not get the firearms there. They did not go outside. The men there came from within the main prison with the gun. The man (prisons officer) who’s responsible for their escape still working in the prison.”

However, it is unclear why the escapees were not searched and the weapons discovered before they were brought into the visiting area to see relatives.

Officers attempted to move quickly but the inmates were already together in the visiting room. They then made their escape, he said.

One of the prisons officers said it was brought to his attention by senior prisons officers that soon after the jail break, a high-powered meeting was held with three former ministers of the People's Partnership government and other stakeholders.

“They were told (name withheld) to suspend seven prisons officers. It didn’t matter who. 

“We want justice. We heard that they were pushing the suspension before the elections. 

“They bargaining with officers’ lives and sitting in position,” an officer said.

THE ESCAPEES

Allan ‘Scanny’ Martin, Hassan Atwell and Christopher ‘Monster’ Selby escaped from the prison.

Prisons officer Leon Rouse was shot and wounded. PC Sherman Maynard was killed in the fracas.

Prisoner Martin was killed, and Hassan Atwell was killed by members of the Rastacity gang after hiding out in Port-of-Spain. 

Selby, 30, surrendered himself to officers at the Barataria Police Station hours later.

He was subsequently charged with ten offences including the murder of PC Maynard.