Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Editorial: The politics of expedience

Published:Thursday | October 8, 2015 | 10:00 AM

Jamaica's human-rights groups and other NGOs wouldn't easily be accused of cowardice. There's hardly a controversy they won't embrace, and they tend to have opinions on everything, ready for dispensation without restraint. Except, it seems, on the matter of the planned new prison, about which they have been unusually quiet.

We expect, though, that, having discerned the false choices and the political expedience of most of those who reject the basis on which Britain proposes to help finance the facility, they will appreciate the illogic of the opposition and why Jamaica should continue with its negotiations for the deal. The answer, in part, lies in respect of fundamental human rights, which is largely denied to inmates of Jamaican prisons.

For instance, with 2,900 inmates, Jamaica's two major prisons, at Tower Street in Kingston and Spanish Town, St Catherine, are 41 per cent beyond their capacity. They are overcrowed. Moreover, these 19th-century buildings, built as old-fashioned penal institutions, are incapable of serious restructuring as modern correctional facilities, to which they pay lip service. The situation is not much better in other institutions.

 

degrading treatment

 

Domestic human-rights group and their international partners have long insisted on reform.

In April 2000, after two inmates had been murdered in Jamaica's prisons, Amnesty International declared that conditions in these facilities amounted to "cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment and fall well below international standards on prisons. Overcrowding in severe and unsanitary conditions". Months later, in the face of alleged mass beatings of prisoners, Amnesty, with Jamaicans for Justice in tow, was making similar noises, equating "incarceration (in Jamaica) to crude, inhuman and degrading treatment". In a 2012 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights described prison conditions in Jamaica as "generally very poor, due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and lack of sufficient medical care".

For more than a generation, Jamaica has talked about building a modern prison, but has been unable to afford to. Now, Britain has offered £25 million (J$4.5 billion) towards the project as part of an agreement under which, starting in 2020, up to 300 Jamaican citizens in UK prisons would complete their sentences here. The 'repatriated' prisoners would account for no more than a third of the number the new facility would accommodate. In the event the specifics of the transfer agreement is yet to be negotiated, it would be up to the Jamaican authorities to ensure, even if the Brits make an economic savings on the arrangement, that the deal is of net financial value to this country.

Unfortunately, it has suited some people to ignore other elements of substance of David Cameron's, the UK prime minister, recent visit to Jamaica and portray the prison deal as embodiment of not only a rejection of demands for reparations for slavery, but of a symbol of a new slavery - as though Jamaica could not accommodate an arrangement that would extricate some of its young men from "inhuman and degrading treatment", which in a broader dialogue on the country's past.

It is unfortunate that the political Opposition has made such a gratuitous grasp at this expedience, including its retreat from the House on Tuesday. We would be impressed if Andrew Holness engaged his party in serious policy debates. It's time that the domestic human-rights groups remind the Gangs of Gordon House that people deserve discourse of substance.