Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Editorial: Get the prison built

Published:Tuesday | August 25, 2015 | 8:00 AM

Peter Bunting was noticeably vague about the timetable for the new prison, of which he spoke last week. If anything, the security minister's invocation of a price tag of J$10 billion, in the context of Jamaica's fiscal circumstances, suggests that it will not happen any time soon.

That, of course, would not be new. Jamaica has been talking about building a state-of-the-art prison for decades. In the 1990s, when K.D. Knight was responsible for security and justice, he suggested the project was imminent. Mr Knight's successor at the security ministry, the current finance minister, Peter Phillips, also spoke thumpingly about a new prison.

The project, apparently, consistently foundered on its economics. While we appreciate the fiscal constraints faced by the Government, and endorse the correctional reform initiatives being pursued by Mr Bunting, it is important this facility gets built. There are, we believe, innovative ways for it to be done, without major outlays by the national treasury - and certainly not all at once.

A commitment to basic decency and universal human rights demands this new facility. Yet, its need is not only for the satisfaction of altruism. It would be an investment in social stability.

Jamaica's two major prisons - at Tower Street in Kingston and in Spanish Town, St Catherine, which carry the misnomer of correctional centres - are overcrowded, obsolete, 18th-century Dickensian gaols from which people who go in with relatively normal, though flawed personalities are likely to emerge with hardened deviance. The ideal capacity of each is 850. Either houses around twice that. Neither can be expanded or seriously modernised. Further, Fort Augusta, the women's prison on the Kingston Harbour, is similarly a relic, which might better be marked as a heritage site and may well be consumed as part of an expanded port.

 

good move

 

Yet, Jamaica maintains a prison population of around three and a half thousand, after sending around 1,500 people to jail annually. The building of a new J$164-million dorm at the low-security Tamarind Farm, which houses a few score inmates, is a good move.

But a large, modern facility capable of housing prisoners of various security risks is likely to be economically efficient and seems the kind of project tailor-made for the public-private partnership arrangement, utilising any of a number of operational models, including private interests building and operating the facility for a defined period and compensated, conceivably, by the J$3.5 billion a year the Government spends on its adult correctional facilities. Or, perhaps, it might be that the new prison is designed to be built on a phased basis, with each bit planned for and completed over a specific budget cycle.

Waiting, as has been the case over the past two decades, means that the project becomes increasingly expensive. It also means that the prisons become other bits of public infrastructure that fall into ruin, in much the same way as the systems for water, sewerage, solid waste management, among others, were allowed to rot. But, in this case, with the consequences of the rot of human lives, the hardening of criminals, and the moulding of recidivists.

That is a price that has remained too high to pay, but a solution in creative thinking.