Guards accused in escape inquiry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 1995, 12:00am

AN inquiry into last month's mass escape of 90 Vietnamese boat peopl from High Island detention centre yesterday demanded a full security review at the camp.

The 80-page report on the breakout before dawn on July 16 contains strong criticism, much of it aimed at lax management.

And it calls for a full security review at the camp.

The report highlighted a litany of failings, including broken searchlights and time clocks.

It also warned that security staff would need to be extra vigilant in the run-up to 1997 as detainees became increasingly desperate to avoid repatriation.

And it revealed security patrols altered their routine after intelligence reports suggested inmates planned to kidnap the guards.

Among the security failings it highlighted were: Searchlights which did not work or which shone in the faces of Correctional Services officers making them virtually blind.

Watchtowers which had to be evacuated during storms because they had no lightning conductors.

And time clocks, which were positioned around the camp to ensure patrols were doing their jobs, were either broken or located in such a way that guards could take short cuts.

The report, by four senior officers appointed by the Commissioner of Correctional Services, severely criticised camp staff.

It revealed CSD staff had sheltered from the rain indoors instead of keeping watch between 2 am and 3 am when Vietnamese were cutting wire fences.

Although the escape was planned by just two or three inmates, it took more than an hour for the holes in both inner and outer fences to be discovered, by which time 90 boat people had escaped. Four are still on the run.

An initial search of the camp the next day discovered 207 'unauthorised items' including sharpened iron pipes, home-made knives, and wire-cutters.

After the second hole was discovered, a further search took place on August 1 and 1,529 'unauthorised articles' were seized.

The inquiry also said two CSD officers who were manning sentry posts had carried out their duties in a way that was 'totally unacceptable' and a more senior officer had failed to comply with a superintendent's orders.

CSD staff names were removed from the report and a section entitled 'Accountability of chief officers' was not made public.

However, CSD Assistant Commissioner Bonnie Wong Yuk-man said disciplinary hearings would be set up soon.

The report would be stud-ied in detail to determine its implications for finance and staffing, but she was unable to say how many officers might be subject to action.

It recommends 12 improvements at the camp, including the setting up of a mobile patrol team equipped with riot gear, and the installation of metal detector doorway at the camp's entrance.

A government spokesman said the patrol teams had already begun work.

While the report is critical of a few staff, it is generally sympathetic to those who guard a population with a rising number of 'increasingly desperate and potentially dangerous' members.

It also pointed out that staff previously on security duties had been reassigned to inmates welfare and had not been replaced. Much staff time was absorbed by overseeing the compulsory repatriation programme.

Last night, CSD Officers' Association spokesman Yum Poi also called for extra staff to be recruited for mobile perimeter patrols.

'It is a quite reasonable report and appears to have been fairly assessed,' he said. 'The recommendations should be supported except for the establishment of the perimeter mobile teams. I agree with this concept but . . . we have to think about the welfare and security of our prison system.' Mr Yum said he had confidence in the department's disciplinary system.

The camp's 'intelligence network' previously used by CSD staff, which could have tipped them off about an escape, had collapsed when it became clear all residents were to be sent back to Vietnam.

'We note that many Vietnamese migrants are expert in making tools and weapons out of anything,' the report comments.

But it points out that they 'are allowed to live a community life'. More than two-thirds are less than 18 years old and they cannot be given a prison regime.