By Kenton X. Chance
Four prison officers were in police custody Tuesday night in connection with the escape of an accused murderer, who has since turned himself in to police.
Veron Primus, 32, of Vermont, who is awaiting trial in connection with the November 2015 murder of 33-year-old real estate agent Sharlene Greaves, escaped custody at Her Majesty’s Prison, in Kingstown, overnight Monday.
The prison houses mainly persons awaiting trial, but its inmates include some felons.
Tuesday afternoon, Commissioner of Police Colin John declined to comment on how Primus escaped or the time frame in which it took place, saying it is the subject of an investigation.
He said Primus was discovered missing Tuesday morning and on receiving that information, police put certain things in place and warned key witnesses in the cases against Primus.
The police chief said that authorities launched a manhunt for Primus and put in place other measures that he declined to disclose, saying he did not want to disclose certain information about police operations.
He also referred the media to Superintendent of Prisons, Brenton Charles, regarding a question about how many persons were being housed in the cell along with Primus.
iWitness News was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach the prison chief at the time of publication.
John also did not comment on whether Primus had been aided in making his escape.
“There are certain things I would not delve into at this moment because they are the subject of an investigation. So I would prefer not to answer that question at this time.”
Primus has also been indicted in the United States — where he lived for almost two decades — in connection with the 2006 murder of Chanel Petro-Nixon, 16, in Brooklyn, New York.
John said Kingstown has received an extradition request, but that it would be considered at the end of the legal proceedings in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Further, Primus is charged with one count of kidnapping, two counts of rape and two counts of buggery.
Those charges stem from his alleged abduction of a woman, who has told police that Primus kept her against her will at a house in Vermont, from Jan. 1 to April 15, 2016.
Primus turned himself in, accompanied by lawyer Jomo Thomas around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Primus called Thomas on his mobile phone shortly after police issued a wanted bulletin.
The accused murderer told the lawyer to meet him at the Grammar School Playing field in Richmond Hill and the lawyer escorted Primus into custody.
Tuesday night, a well-placed source told iWitness News that representatives of the Public Service Union (PSU), including their lawyer, were at the Central Police Station in Kingstown, trying to gather information about the prison officers who were taken into custody.
The PSU, which is headed by Elroy Boucher, is the trade union that represents prison officers.
One well-placed source told iWitness News that the four prison wardens were being kept at four separate police stations, namely at Questelles, Biabou, Calliaqua and Kingstown.
But, a union official told iWitness News that he confirmed that one of the officers was being held in Calliaqua, none was at the Questelles station and that Biabou said that none of them had arrived at that station up to that point — around 9:30 p.m.
“We will like to know what is happening,” said the source, who asked not to be named at this time.
Early on Tuesday, another source, familiar with operations of the prison, spoke to iWitness News on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case and in an effort to shield himself from any repercussions for speaking to the media.
The source told iWitness News that before his escape, Primus was being kept in a single cell in an area called “Dormitory”, located in the maximum-security area of the prison.
The source said that it was a prison officer with less than one year’s experience on the job who discovered that the high-profile inmate was missing Tuesday morning.
The prison officer reportedly met Primus’ cell open and no one inside sometime between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m.
“This is kind of worrying because the key [to the cell] is not kept up there…” the source said.
The source said that Primus had, some time ago, hanged up some sheets in his cell, inhibiting the view from outside the cell.
Some prison officers had expressed concern about the situation, the source said.
Officers giving prisoners keys to cells
The prison break comes four days after a prison officer contacted iWitness News asking that we look into what he said was a major shortage of staff at Her Majesty’s Prison in Kingstown.
The prison officer, who has several years’ experience, said that the situation was such that prisoners were, at times, given the keys to cells to help prison officers to let other prisoners out of their cells for meals and exercise.
“We have inmates helping officers to open cells because of the shortage of officers, especially on weekends, when we have only five officers working. Those that we think we can trust,” the corrections officer told iWitness News.
The prison officer told iWitness News that amidst the staff shortage at the prison, the relationship between the prisoners and the wardens is a delicate one.
“Sometimes, a situation might occur in the prison but officers try to take it cool because of the minimum number of officers we have.
“Because trying to go into a cell or trying to stop what is going on, if three officers are working, as an officer, I can’t go in a cell alone because you might never know when inmates might want to try to get the better of the prison officers. Sometimes, you just have to try to talk to them without even a punishment…”
He said that an officer might be outside a cell and see an inmate on a cell phone, which is against the prison regulation.
“I might go and try to take that phone and that phone might be for everybody’s use, so 15-20 persons live in that cell and all of them using that phone and I might try and take it away, the rest of them might attack me as the only officer there. And then they might have other friends in other cells and that is a risk for officers.”
The prison officer told iWitness News that the staff shortage obtains although he has personally seen a large file containing applications by many persons seeking employment as prison officers.
He said that because of the staff shortage, prison officers, at times, have to work double shifts. There are three shifts at the prison, namely 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The prison officer said that when they work double shift, they are given an extra day or two off, which means that other colleagues on other shifts will have even fewer members on their teams.
“If you do a double shift then take my two days off, the shift I am supposed to be on will be short staffed and officers will have to work extra,” he said.
The prison officer was speaking to iWitness News about two weeks after an ex-prisoner, who was recently released, took to Hot FM complaining about conditions at the prisons.
The former inmate said that prison officers had asked him to make public the fact that they sometimes have to ask prisoners to help them to open cells because of inadequate staff.
The prison officer who spoke to iWitness News last week said that the statements that the former inmate made on radio are a reflection of the realities at the prison.
He said that because of the inadequate staff, sometimes prisoners are not let out of their cells for exercise.
“We don’t want to run the risk of opening the prison. Two officers cannot have 200 and something inmates in the yard having exercise,” he said.
He said there are points to cover at the prison, including a section of the prison walls toward Paul’s Avenue, where persons throw over drug, cigarette, phones and other prohibited items into the prison compound.
“And it can be more than that too because a weapon might come over, God forbid, and if a prisoner gets it, anything can happen from there.”
The officer said that before the Belle Isle Correctional Facility was opened, Her Majesty’s Prison used to have over 20 prison officers on the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift and about 10 on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., when most of the inmates are in their cells.
But now, the number of officers working the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift can be as few as four, the officer said.
He said that during that shift, prison officers mainly have to make regular patrol of the prison yard, because in the night, marijuana and phones come over the prison walls “and the prisoners might use their stick and their line and try and hook it from the cell gate and pull it in. So we have to make patrols in the night to try and get it.
“And also, we make patrols to see if the prisoners are on phone or engaged in any other illegal activities.”
He said the prison officers who work the night shift are also responsible for ensuring that the bakers and cooks are let out of their cells to prepare meals early in the morning.
The officer said that there is not a lot of violence in the prison.
“We are lucky because the prisoners are disciplined prisoners. Most of them are disciplined prisoners because you might have four officers working on the 7-3 shift and you ring the bell and tell the prisoners go to their cells, you might hear a few say, ‘Already? So quick?’ but they will still abide and go to their cells.”
Two years ago, the PSU raised concerns about the well-being of prison officers, saying they were experiencing burnout after working long hours to compensate for short staffing at the correctional facility.
Boucher told a press conference in June 2017 that the situation has existed for at least a year and was a security concern.
“Thank God we are a peaceful country and we are not too militant like Trinidad or Barbados, otherwise, Prisons might have already been closed down for a day or two,” he said back then, adding that there were14 vacant positions at the Prisons that were yet to be filled, after more than a year.
Asked on Tuesday about reports of inadequate staff at the prison, John said:
“I don’t know that to be a fact so I cannot say if that was the case or that wasn’t the case.”
The police chief, however, said that steps would be taken to prevent any copycat escape attempts.
“The police, in consultation with the prison authorities, will make sure that things are in place not only to prevent him but to prevent other persons who may wish to copy-cat and do the same thing,” he said.