By L.K. Hewlett
St. Kitts Reporter
The main door to Her Majesty’s Prison in Basseterre remains closed following a prisoner rebellion last Friday and Saturday that ended with over twenty persons injured.
As cricket fans enjoyed the last CWC match in Warner Park Stadium on Saturday, many were unaware of the insurrection less than 100 feet behind them.
According to reliable sources and police press releases, the violence began on Friday after prison guards smelled marijuana in a cell and attempted to search it. It was reported that the prisoners in the cell refused to let the guards in and a brawl ensued that sent one prisoner and one guard to the emergency room. The guard suffered a busted head after the inmates ganged up on him.
The sources said that the prisoners had apparently planned to rush the guards when they tried to return the injured prisoner to the cell the following day. Instead, on Saturday morning the prisoners used their bed frame as a battering ram to force open the locked cell door and storm the prison. The escapees managed to break the locks to the store room and removed farming implements and tools such as hammers, awls, and screw drivers. They also took empty glass beverage bottles from the room to use as missiles which they pelted over the walls and onto the surrounding streets.
Defence Force soldiers were called in along with police and members of the CariCom Task Force. Police officials have adamantly denied that the CariCom task force used unnecessary force; in fact, they stated that the foreign police and army contingent were present in a supportive role only and did not take part in the conflict.
The Observer spoke to some of the soldiers who responded to the request for reinforcement that Saturday and according to them, the foreigner officers did not take part and only two of them assisted with putting prisoners back into cells after the commotion was over.
“People are talking as if they were there. We were the ones who went in and got things under control. And we did it in a matter of minutes. Two of the Jamaican police assisted us when we were putting the prisoners who were involved in the riot back into their cells,” one soldier said.
The soldiers said that not all of the prisoners in the jail were involved in the disturbance. They said that some of the inmates assisted law enforcement by barring gates and preventing the rioters from escaping into the streets of Basseterre. They also were the ones who opened the gates for the soldiers to enter the prison.
“When we got in they had all sorts of tools that can be considered dangerous weapons and we had to shoot at them in order to subdue and disarm them. Some ran into the cells and began barricading the doors with beds and other things so that we could not get to them so we used what force was necessary to get them to surrender,” the soldier explained. He said that the prisoners who had escaped their cells went upstairs to other prison cells and proceeded to break open the cell doors of those who wanted to be freed. He said that some prisoners told the escapees not to open their cells and leave them out of the confusion.
The soldier said he got very upset when he heard that they had shot unarmed prisoners and said that no live rounds were used.
‘We used what we call baton bullets, which are hard rubber pellets that sting and stun when they hit a person. The situation did not warrant us using deadly force. We couldn’t use teargas like some people were saying that we should have. The wind would have carried the gas into the stadium and the surrounding homes and streets. The situation was handled efficiently and swiftly so much so that people went to cricket and didn’t even know that it happened,” he said.
He said that they managed to detain the prisoners who participated in the uprising and secured them in their respective cells. He confirmed that most of the guilty ones were the younger prisoners who were awaiting trial for various offences including attempted murder and murder. None of the injured, he stated, had sustained life threatening injuries.
Approximately 30 prisoners were marched before the Magistrate on Monday to answer to charges relating to the incident, most of whom could look forward to having their original sentences extended while others would be facing additional charges.