Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Mark Wignall | Fighting crime in prison

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Inmates in the tailor shop being assisted by a correctional officer during open day at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in 2015. Similar interventions are paying off at the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre.

 

On a normal day in November 2016 at the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre, there are more than 926 inmates, with about 26 in the 'starts' class, that is coming in for the first time. The average age of the 'starts' is just under the age of 21, a terrible time to launch out into a life of crime.

While there can be no perfect age to begin a life of crime involving guns, murder, rape and scamming, the end result is that there are about 203 inmates at St Catherine serving life sentences. Even more troubling is the 'ordinary class', those inmates who keep slipping in and out of prison, about 276 tallied at the end of last month.

The good news is that the rate of recidivism has fallen from previous years. That is partly influenced by active efforts at rehabilitation.

At the prison school, where about 23 inmates were enrolled, an 80 per cent pass rate in CSEC math and English language is pretty standard. A library is in place, as well as a computer lab with 12 monitors, something I am certain not many of us were aware of.

A radio station, 88.9 FM, is also in place, and the content is appropriately vetted. The 4-H club produces exotic products such as breadfruit vinegar and a sweet potato mix. Seventeen inmates at the very busy bakery produce about 5,700 loaves of bread per day, in addition to dinner rolls, buns and rock cakes on occasion.

There is a woodwork shop and a tailoring establishment where all the clothes for the warders and the inmates are made. The items from the woodwork shop are sold on the outside and the profits divided between the prison and the inmate-producer.

If National Security Minister Bobby Montague has his way, the whole approach to rehabilitation will be taken up by more than a notch. The idea behind his new plan is to keep low-risk offenders from becoming hardened once they enter the prison system and leave to become menaces to society.

The recently launched pilot project in electronic tagging will allow low-risk offenders to serve their sentences doing work in their communities. In the archaic past, all offenders were lumped together, with the result being low-risk offenders being exposed to hardened criminals. We all know how that story turns out. We have paid the price for that for too long.

 

Enter prison skinny, come out fat

 

I have seen it so many times before. A youngster living in an inner-city pocket drops off the radar for two or three years, then suddenly reappears. He used to be scrawny and now he looks quite well fed.

Where was he? Did he get a visa or was he lucky enough to have his MP dole out a special favour on a farm-work ticket? No to all of that. He was in prison, probably on assault or robbery with aggravation charges.

Three years later on the road and he can only find odd jobs on construction sites where he is the lowest-paid worker. He becomes skinny again, and although he genuinely does not desire to return to the prison population, on the outside he is pushed around, paid spit, many times owed for work, not paid, and cussed off on top of it.

He 'kotches' with friends, and when he does live alone, it is in a one-room shanty that he builds out of bits of lumber that he 'expropriated' from a job site. When he finds a girlfriend, for him, getting 'bun' is a blessing and it is expected.

As harsh as life on the inside can be for the more hardened, that youngster knows that when he is among them, he gets respect. With little education and less respect, the rigours of life in freedom on the outside slowly ease him towards where he no longer feels like a boy to be pushed around: back to prison.

One day in 1997 at about 5:30 a.m., I met three ex-cons by a stall at the Duhaney Park Shopping Centre. We were there to talk about life on the inside. All were in their late 30s and had had violent lives driven by poor education and broken families.

One said, "Di worst ting inside is di madness. Me woulda sey bout two out a every ten man dey mad. Head gone!"

Another said, "Some people have it say di homo man dem nuff in deh. Dat nuh true. Dem keep to demself and we keep to wiself. But in deh nuh pretty."

One told me that when he was held at Remand Centre, a known gunman there ordered about six men to lie flat beside each other so that he could use them as his 'mattress' for the night. That is probably an apt description of hell.

 

SECURITY GUARD BOOST

 

A week hardly goes by that I am not contacted by a security guard giving me details of the horrible conditions of their working arrangements. Over the years, it has come to me that the number of established security guard companies treating their workers with dignity can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

"When time come fi di man dem relieve me, dem seh mi haffi do annoder shift. Dem tell mi dis at two in di morning. Mi hungry and dem carry food fi di dog dem," one told me years ago.

Last week, one guard in his 50s working with one of the more established outfits said, "I work 64 hours per week, a typical shift is 12 hours. A typical unarmed security guard earns $3,141 per shift and $18,846 per week before statutory deductions. The smaller companies have longer hours and less pay. As yu quint, yu lose yu work."

Recently, the Ministry of National Security introduced, through the Private Security Regulation Authority, a health insurance scheme with Guardian Life. It is self-contributory. At the launch, the minister said, "I am of the view that the security guard industry is underappreciated in this country. These 23,000 men and women are a vital part of this nation's growth agenda. Banks, schools, ministries, airports cannot function without them.

"Some guards are certified, yet many times we do not give attention to their working conditions. Today is, therefore, a historic day. Under the scheme, guards at the entry level will be able to access health insurance at a cost of J$997 per month."

This is a big step for these underappreciated Jamaican workers, with whom we have to interface daily. How many times have we driven through some official gate and muttered, "That idiot security boy. Tek forever to open the %*!@ gate."

This is a big step in the right direction. The reality is, the country cannot operate without the private security guard companies. Our levels of violent crime must be tackled on all fronts, and it is only a deluded politician who believes that any one person has a magic bullet for bringing down the rate of violent crime to 'livable' limits.

Not every security guard can get a plum job working at, say, the US Embassy with sick and vacation leave with pay and a cheap health card.

Another guard who works with a small outfit told me a few weeks ago that he lives in Bull Bay and his company has sent him to work at a location in Stony Hill. After his shift ends, he has to make his way off the hill and home.

It is rough out there for a lot of security guards, so this initiative by the Ministry of National Security is a move long overdue.

- Mark Wignall is a political and public affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.