Armadale atmosphere had been tense - witness
Published: Thursday | July 30, 2009
One of the correctional officers on duty when a fire razed the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in May, killing seven girls, said yesterday the atmosphere had become tense two weeks before the incident.
Caldeen Shaw-Slack told the commission of enquiry into the incident that the tension had developed after seven girls who had escaped the facility were brought back.
On Day Three of the enquiry, being held at the Council of Voluntary Social Service in Kingston, Shaw-Slack, who has been working at the St Ann facility since June 2004, said she was doing her third consecutive shift when the girls became boisterous.
She said the girls had been on lockdown since the week before as one of the wards had attempted to jump over the fence while being transferred from the office dorm to the cottage dorm.
She said that, under lockdown, wards are not allowed outside the dorm and have to stay inside for all activities. Meals are taken to them.
The 23 wards were usually provided with one or two buckets for excretory functions and were locked inside from about 5:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next day.
Shaw-Slack said there was no supervision of the wards while they were locked inside, and that the only way to see what was happening inside was to look through the glass pane at the top of the door or through the windows.
However, contrary to the testimony of police personnel yesterday, Shaw-Slack said she saw Constable Lawrence Burrell leave and return to Armadale with a black object in his hand, which looked like a tear gas canister, and heard the girls call out to him asking why he went for tear gas.
"From him come back wid it dem identify the object," she declared.
Shaw-Slack said she heard a commotion at the front window and smelled a distinctive scent, then saw flames in the building. At this point, all the girls rushed to the window coughing. This prompted her to begin pulling the wards through the window, with the assistance of another colleague and Lucille Hamilton, the security guard. After assisting three wards, she went inside the building to open the door. However, she did not reach far as the smoke was unbearable, so she gave Hortense Higgins the key.
Before the adjournment yesterday, Shaw-Slack told the enquiry that there was a riot at the facility before, when a ward lit a mattress at a building that previously housed the wards.
She said it was possible that a ward, who was involved in that incident, was also part of the commotion on May 22.
The enquiry is scheduled to resume today at 10 a.m. with two other correctional officers being cross-examined.