A prison officer who was stationed at the Maximum Security Prison in Arouca in 2013 and was struck on the head while trying to get a prisoner back in his cell during a prison riot at the facility, has been awarded compensation.
Michael Bridgelal’s injuries were so serious he was put on injury leave for 146 days. He was awarded $65,000 plus interest at a rate of 2.5 per cent from December 18, 2013, to July 21.
Justice Carol Gobin, who made the award, was asked to determine if there was a breach of duty of care owed to the prison officer by the State. In making the award, she also rejected the State’s claim of contributory negligence.
According to the evidence before her, when the riot began, prison cells were filled with smoke and there was a fire. The riot gate was locked but the prisoners had all managed to unlock their individual cells. They were roaming about, extremely hostile and aggressive making threats, cursing and it would turn out, some were armed with improvised weapons.
Armed with nothing but their 24-inch batons, the prison officers who responded opened the riot gate and attempted to take control of the situation before they came under attack.
The judge heard evidence from one prison officer that four officers, armed with only their regulation batons, should not have been sent in but they were duty-bound to follow the instructions of their supervisor.
“The officer was clear that what happened on that day, ought not to have happened,” she said in her decision. She also heard that the group that first responded was under-equipped and insufficient in number to deal with the riot.
She held that the officers, including Bridgelal, could not be faulted for deciding that their duty to protect life and property and restore order outweighed their personal safety.
Eventually, the emergency response unit assisted them to get the situation under control.
“The Division was rendered less than safe because the prisoners had been able to leave their cells. This points to a failure to provide a safe place /system of work,” she said.
Gobin also pointed to other evidence that led to the finding that the not only were not secure, but a malfunction in the locking system was known and officers were expected to work with it.
“Further it established that prisoners had undetected improvised weapons which allowed them to open their cells,” she said.
In her ruling, Gobin said, “Prisons are inherently dangerous places of work. In recent times they have become more so.
“Overcrowding, poor conditions, gang infiltration, and culture within the prisons has generally increased volatility and dangers faced by officers.
“Danger follows prison officers even after they sign off duty. In the past decade there has been a disturbing trend of hits called from behind prison walls on prison officers,” she said, as she also referred to testimony by one of the officers who testified for the State that before the 2013 riot, there was one such killing.
“Tensions were high at the Maximum Security Prison (MSP),” she said of that time and the present.
Bridgelal was represented by attorneys Alvin Pariagsingh and Robert Abdool Mitchell while Roshan Ramcharitar and Laura Persad represented the State.