Ex-inmate tells how he survived 1997 prison strike

BY SHARLENE HENDRICKS
Staff reporter
hendrickss@jamaicxaobserver.com

Sunday, April 07, 2019

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In 1997 when inmate Henzel Muir, 44, was serving the first five years of his life sentence at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre (TSACC), more popularly called GP (General Penitentiary), he said he experienced the bloodiest period of his incarceration.

That year, warders at the facility went on strike when then Commissioner of Corrections Colonel John Prescod announced that he would be issuing condoms because some inmates had contracted the HIV virus, insinuating that warders were having sex with the inmates.

Official reports at the time were that 14 persons died and 40 were injured. However, Henzel said there were many more inmates who died during what he indicated as a three-day killing spree inside the prison.

“The blood weh me see in a '97 riot make me start have nightmare and waking up all hours of the night. Mi couldn't sleep. The officers left the prison. We were outside day and night and mi see all sort of killings.”

To rebuff any notion that they were having sex with other men inside the prison, Muir explained that the inmates set out to kill all the men who they thought were homosexuals.

“The riot turned out to be a homosexual war. The big men were killing out the homosexuals. Twenty-seven persons died and the prison was locked down for about three days. When them couldn't kill out anymore homosexual, them turn it into a political war.”

Muir explained that inmates affiliated to the People's National Party (PNP), who made up most of the population, started to attack those inmates affiliated with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

“More PNP man was in the prison so them decide fi start kill out the JLP man them too. And then when the JLP man them isolate themselves now, it turned into another war where them start say kill out every ex-police or ex-soldier.

“Now this was when I started to fret because I was a security guard. But what happened is that one of the leaders decide say him have too many friends who were of that background so them change them mind.”

Meanwhile, Muir said that the bloodletting could have been prevented if an officer had taken his warnings seriously when he told him what was about to happen.

“I can remember that some inmates were planning and gathering stones and bottles. I told an officer that it don't look right and the only thing him do at the time is go look.

“It was those same bottles and stone that was gathered that was used to attack a section of the prison and starting the riot. I believe that if that officer had intervened, we wouldn't have 1997 riot.”

Nevertheless, the ex-inmate said he armed himself with a sharpened piece of metal wire to guard his life during those fretful three days.

“As a inmate you affi have something on you strap, because you don't know who can come at you. Me did have a jammer about this long,” Muir indicated with his hands. “Make mi tell you something where the department and the Government mek a big blunder, and them don't see it.

“Them have the wire security fencing inside the prison. Now when them say them putting up wire fencing inside the prison to isolate sections of the prison, what you think we do with the wire? Is them same one give us the weapon.

“All we need is just a little piece and the wire easy to cut, plus we have the time. We use knife or a cutty and just keep cutting the steel, or we work it till it break. Remember, we have all the time in the world! It nuh must take one day,” Muir stated.

Other than staying strapped, Muir said he had to be smart as an inmate, which for him meant knowing his friends while staying neutral.

“You have to know the friends who you keep in a prison. One of my friends was a man who them call 'Lord Evil'. Him do a lot of things to people and you done know say if him do somebody anything, them have friends who a guh want tek revenge. So me did affi watch myself because a dat.

“But it is best to keep on no side and be neutral and keep your eyes and ears open — that's how you survive prison. But being at GP took a toll on me so I decided to request a transfer.”

In 1999 Muir was transferred to the South Camp Road correctional centre.

The isolation of suspected homosexual inmates at TSACC today, apparently has its origins in the 1997 prison riots.


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