Right Steps & Poui Trees


Ten Years Later, #RememberArmadale

Ten years ago, on the night of May 22, 2009, there was a fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St Ann, Jamaica. Seven girls died as a result of the fire and many others were injured. A Commission of Enquiry into the fire and its subsequent report revealed the horrific sequence of events that led to the fire and death of the girls and showed that the deaths were entirely preventable. Today, as we remember Armadale, I am posting an article by Alexis Goffe (my son), which also appeared in today`s Gleaner.

For most of my life, I was a loyal carnivore. I hated all vegetables except broccoli, which only interested me because I had it ingrained in my head from childhood that they were trees and I, the big bad hurricane. I despised peas and so I had to spend extra time at the dining table, after Sunday lunch, unable to leave until I finished the pile of red peas I had picked out of the rice. If you know my mother, you know she doesn’t mess around.

But then things changed when the fire happened at Armadale. A year later, I decided to give up eating meat, so every day, every time I think of what to eat, I remember Armadale. I wanted to ensure the nine-day wonder didn’t happen and I wanted to raise awareness of the incident.

If anyone asked me how come I didn’t eat meat anymore, I would tell them why:
On May 22, 2009, there was a fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St Ann, Jamaica, that resulted in the deaths of seven girls. There were 23 girls in a room which was meant for five people. The girls were given seven bunk beds and 14 mattresses in the room to sleep on. They had been on lockdown for two weeks prior to the fire, which meant they did not have access to education, recreation or the bathroom.

The police were called to the premises that night because the staff reported that the girls were being unruly. A tear gas canister was thrown into the room, which landed on a mattress and reportedly started the fire. The door to the room was locked. To date, no one has been held accountable.

Following a commission of enquiry, it was found that the fire was caused by a tear gas canister thrown by Constable Lawrence Burrell. However, he was freed of the charges after the Crown conceded that it did not have sufficient evidence against him.

During the first year after my decision, I told over 700 people about Armadale. At the time I was living in the United States and I started to recognise a stark difference between the reactions of Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans. The non-Jamaicans generally had a sense of shock. The Jamaicans – not so much.

I will never forget the first time I heard someone say that they, the girls, deserved it. It was through this experience I realised how traumatised we are as a people, how normalised violence is and how we cope with it in order to get on with our days as humans at all stages – children in school, employees at work, families at home.

Then almost a year to the day of the Armadale fire was the Tivoli massacre, where over 70 people died at the hands of the State. Jamaica’s soul took a beating in the space of a year.

In truth, with our history of intense violence and gross violations of our rights and dignity, Jamaica’s soul has been taking a beating for several decades. Perhaps this was the straw that broke the mule’s back and placed us further along in our collective trauma, feeling helpless at the question – what can I do to stop this?

Even though it’s been hard to witness, I understand why year after year, as sure as day follows night, when I say the memorial of the Armadale fire is coming, I’ll get responses that can best be summed up in a sound – yawn. Yet still, it must be done.

So let me take a moment to interrupt your morning, afternoon or evening, your breakfast, lunch or dinner, in your home, at your office, or on the bus, wherever you are reading this, to remind you that today is the 10-year memorial of the fire at Armadale that claimed the lives of seven girls and caused lifelong injuries to many more. Let us remember the seven we lost, their families and friends and the survivors.

And to those who do not know about the fire at Armadale, you have a decision to make: to learn or remain uninformed. To those who know about Armadale, we also have a decision – to forget or to remember. We all have a choice to either be complicit in our silence and inaction or to act and unapologetically call for justice.

To anyone who believes that every child deserves love, respect and dignity, I ask you to pay attention. Because in the midst of the 10-year memorial of Armadale we must remember that the story continues and the first line of the next scene is already written, “Then there was the fire at Walker’s Place of Safety on January 16, 2018.”

– Alexis Goffe

ARMADALE Newspaper Ad - white big 3 (1)

This is the link to the short video on YouTube that is mentioned in the picture above: Armadale: 10 Year Memorial Video

#REMEMBERARMADALE

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Police Have Sent File on Walker’s Place of Safety Fire to the DPP

When news came of the fire that destroyed the Walker’s Place of Safety on January 16, 2018, resulting in the death of two girls, there was an outpouring of grief and concern from officials and members of the public. Offers of help were extended, commitments were made regarding care for the surviving children and donations were given for immediate needs and towards the rebuilding of the facility.

 

At the time, I could not help thinking of the fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Facility on the night of May 22, 2009, which caused the death of seven girls and injury and trauma to numerous others. The subsequent Commission of Enquiry revealed specific information about the circumstances – horrifying and preventable – that led to the death of those children.

Assuming (hoping?) that lessons had been learned from that tragic event and loss of life, I expected that there would be the kind of thorough and detailed investigation and reporting that would indicate the specific circumstances that led to the death of the two children at Walker’s Place of Safety. I expected that there would be a full public accounting, so that we would know why these children’s lives had been lost, although the lives of so many others had been saved.

I did not hear in the public statements by officials the kind of details that would be needed and perhaps I didn’t expect it. I did, however, expect that in written format somewhere in the government agencies that level of investigation, reporting and accounting would exist. Reference was made in the media to a report by the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA, formerly the CDA – Child Development Agency) and the fire report by the Jamaica Fire Brigade. I made Access to Information (ATI) requests for these documents, in the hopes that they would provide more of the type of information I was expecting to see. They didn’t.

(I wrote two blog posts about these reports – one on May 17, 2018 –

Walker’s Place of Safety Fire Brigade Report via Access to Information Request

and the other on September 29, 2018 –

Fire at Walker’s Place of Safety: More Information Needed

In the second post, I pointed out how little information is given about the circumstances leading to the death of the two children and the need for much more.)

The first anniversary of the fire came and went and on January 24, 2019, I made ATI requests to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) and to the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) via the Ministry of National Security (MNS). There is a reason for having gone that route with my request to the JCF, but that’s for another time. The requests I made were as follows:

1. All documents giving an account of the specific circumstances surrounding the death of the two girls at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of the fire on January 16, 2018.
2. All documents regarding any investigation or inquiry into the death of the two girls at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of the fire on January 16, 2018, including any instructions for such investigation or inquiry to be carried out.
3. All documents related to any aspect of the death of the two girls at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of January 16, 2018.
4. All documents related to any aspect of the fire at the Walker’s Place of Safety on the night of January 16, 2018.
MNS acknowledged receipt of my requests that same day, but then I heard nothing further. I emailed again on February 27, 2019, pointing this out and the following day received this response from MNS:

“This is to inform that your request below was directed to the J.C.F. However, in initial communication with them they had maintained that the matter was being investigated and would in this instance could not be disclosed, this was communicated verbally. I did not want to pass on this information until documented information/confirmation was forwarded about same.

Notwithstanding the J.C.F has formally confirmed that an investigation was conducted on the matter and the file was referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for ruling which is being awaited.

Consequently, based on the status of the matter the documents are exempted vide section 16 (b) of the Access to Information Act. Please be guided accordingly, thank you.”

Section 16(b) deals with one of the provisions for exemption of documents relating to law enforcement and reads as follows:ATI Act 16(b) exempt docs

I replied on the same day asking if I could get some document from the JCF indicating that the file had been referred to the DPP – a memo or cover letter for example, which mightn’t be exempt under the ATI Act.

On March 7, 2019, I received the following acknowledgement from MNS…

“I have requested the document/s that would indicate a referral of this matter to the DPP, I will be awaiting same. It will be forwarded when received. Thank you.”

…and on March 25, 2019, I received the following response:

“Please find attached correspondence substantiating that the matter of the Walker’s Place of Safety fire (case file) was referred to the Director of Public Prosecution by the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Thank you.”

The documents attached were a handwritten certified copy of an entry in the Registry Correspondence Books and a typed copy of the same. An edited image of the typed copy, which is more legible, is shared here. ATI JCF Walker's POS case file correspondence 3-19 - cropped

A list of the names of the people whose statements were sent and a list of the pieces of evidence sent were included under the heading “File Contents”. I decided, however, not to include those in my post, which is why the image is edited. And I note that the document doesn’t actually indicate who the file was sent to. I also note that the file seems to have been sent on February 7, 2019, three weeks after the first anniversary of the fire and two weeks after I made my ATI request to the JCF.

I do not know what decision the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) has made regarding the file…whether or not a decision has been made to prosecute anyone for a crime in regard to the fire or the death of the girls. I wait to hear.

The Armadale Commission of Enquiry and its subsequent report demonstrated the level of enquiry and reporting that should take place if a child dies in a fire in state care, the level of reporting owed to the child, to the family, to the nation. But does it require that a Commission of Enquiry be held to get that detailed accounting? What protocols were set in place after Armadale for the proper investigation of such tragic incidents? And who has the responsibility for such an investigation and reporting?

No-one could be satisfied with the CPFSA report or the Fire Brigade report.

I have been told by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information that they have no information in response to my request about the fire at the Walker’s Place of Safety and the death of the two children, that all such information would be at CPFSA. I have made a request to the Office of the Children’s Advocate, which has asked for an extension of time to consider the request and have been told I will have a response by May 19.

Some weeks ago I went with a couple of others to the site of the Walker’s Place of Safety. There was nothing at the site that would clearly indicate to someone who didn’t know that that was where the facility had been located. The remains of the building have been removed and the site cleared. The type of bush that covers open lots has grown up quickly. There are remains of a play area to the front of the cleared lot and if you walk across the lot and look closely at the ground, you can see small pieces of charred wood sparsely scattered in the dirt. To one side of the lot, there is a tree that still shows signs of being badly burnt.

(Video credit: D. A. Bullock)

The events of that night may be indelibly seared in the memories of those who experienced it directly, of the survivors, of the families of those who died, of the people who helped to rescue children, of the officials who oversaw arrangements immediately afterwards. But just as evidence of what happened at that site is fading, the memory of what happened will fade too – from public consciousness and from the official record – if there is not written accounting to be relied on.

Imagine what would be publicly known or recorded about the tragedy at Armadale if there had been no Commission of Enquiry.

What happened that night at the Walker’s Place of Safety? What led to the death of the two children? Were their deaths preventable? Where is the accounting that would let us know?