Dominica State Prisons and Hurricane Maria: "We have nothing in place"
Maria Story #12: By: Carlisle Jno Baptiste
Hurricane Maria battered Dominica on the evening of September 18, 2017 and it was the bravery of nine officers under the command of a senior officer who volunteered to man the State's only penal institution housing over 200 inmates that prevented deaths and escapees amidst the carnage and destruction of the hurricane.
"That Monday morning September 18, 2017 before leaving home, my wife organized breakfast, lunch and snacks and said that she had a feeling that we were not going to come back home", said a prison officer who requested the usual anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
"About 4:30-5pm I was getting my things together to head home from work when a staff member asked a certain question of one of the superiors. The answer he got left him dejected and as a result I decided that I would stay at work and so called my wife to indicate that to her. I also asked two other staff to stay over because I realized that if this wasn't done, we would have had only four officers on duty that night and I can tell you that that would have been a bigger disaster than Hurricane Maria to us at the State Prison.
"The night shift changed from 7pm…so we had the four officers of the night's shift, the two that I asked to stay over and two females who couldn't go home because of the conditions and where they resided and I, making it a total of nine. That is the crew that manned and managed the prison for the next few days after the passage of Hurricane Maria".
He continued: "Rain began falling in our area about after 7pm on the night of the storm; we had also gotten intelligence that some prisoners were planning to escape during the night of the storm so as a result of that, and we set up fixed positions with the other officers. I, along with another officer went to an area which we knew was very vulnerable. The pressure started to bear down on us at the prison about 9:30-10pm and the area where I was had already lost its roof and it was difficult for us to have gone to the other area that was more secure because the officers who were with me along with myself were armed and because we were near to a cell it means that any how we moved, we ran the risk of being cornered by the prisoners in that area.
"We were then at the mercy of the elements where we had taken refuge and so we had to take our chances and go out but we had to pass through galvanized and barred wire otherwise we would have perished. The ceiling was down and inmates' medicals files were under water so we were able to seek refuge in the sick bay area where we keep our mentally ill inmates. We later braved the weather and decided to do a patrol and it was then we saw that the officer's quarters gone. We also met seven officers who had taken rescue in a 5X5 vault. We then went around the maximum security block and then saw that it was water-logged and inmates were in there sleeping on mattresses. So we had to take a decision to burst an area to create a hole to free the water. This had to be done twice because of the amount of debris. It was about 2am at that time. About 3am or thereabouts we heard some banging at our main gate and when we went to see we found out that it was a few neighbours with their families whose houses had been destroyed and was seeking rescue at the prison. We gladly opened our doors for them.
"When we saw the first semblance of light we decided to do a check and roll call of the staff on duty and also the inmates. They were all fine and in good conditions although a number of inmates were agitated and restless. It was a tense situation at the prison with just around 202 inmates…we had no communication devices with our superiors and or the outside world. We were in crisis. We had no water and had no contacts with our superiors. Panic crept in although two staff members that had to work the morning shift braved the conditions and arrived and they must be commended for that.
"At about 1pm we needed to feed inmates; there was no store keeper and no communication; so a decision had to be taken since we had to feed the over 200 inmates entrusted by the State to our care for safe keeping. A decision was taken to break a certain section of the storeroom to get food to feed the inmates and then seal back the area. We were in a crisis mood. I worked along with other officers for days not going home; I had no idea if my house was damaged…and when I reached home I would not enter since it was flooded but my roof was ok. I said praise God and returned to the prison. We had to ration water and had to prevent inmates from bathing.
"In retrospect if I have to do this again I maybe won't or I maybe would; I am not sure because I am disappointed at the level of support from the powers that be including the Minister of National Security who is yet to even meet with the staff. It was a testing and trying time for us as some inmates were raging and miserable.
"We had to also call in the SSU because some inmates in the security block were agitating. I must say that we did get some good support from a few inmates. Four prisoners did escape from the prison after the hurricane; two were shot, one died of his injuries, and the other is back at the prison nursing his injuries while another was captured in February 2018; only one that is still at large.
"We have nothing in place for such an incident. If another storm comes our way we still have tarpaulins on our roofs. Nobody cares, not a meeting to say thank you and well done. The prison fence was done and all that was repaired by us with the help of the inmates with no help with the powers that be. We are disappointed."