Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Editorial | Take the prison, PM

Published:Monday | December 19, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The matter having already languished five months in ministerial purgatory, it is well past time that the Government answers the Opposition's questions on its current position on Britain's offer of £25 million, with a proviso, to help build a new, modern prison in Jamaica.

After all, this not a complex issue requiring variegated and abstruse policy formulations. It is a straightforward matter on which the Government should be able to plainly declare its stance, unless there are considerations of which we, and the wider public, are unaware.

The UK's offer became public knowledge 14 months ago on the eve of a visit to the island by the then British prime minister, David Cameron, and was quickly embroiled in controversy. While the British would contribute to the prison, which would belong to Jamaica, they wanted, in return, to, from 2020, repatriate up to 300 Jamaicans citizens serving time in UK jails to complete their sentences here. The finer details of the arrangement were being negotiated by the UK government and the former People's National Party administration.

This matter, however, emerged at a time when the matter of Britain's payment of reparations was actively on the regional agenda and being discussed by Caribbean governments, and Mr Cameron's diplomatically unfortunate suggestion to Jamaicans, in the island's Parliament, that they should move beyond slavery.

The issue, over which many Jamaicans were upset, was good political grist for Prime Minister Andrew Holness' Jamaica Labour Party, which was then in Opposition.

"Schools contribute more to economic growth than do prisons," Holness said in a parliamentary speech in response to Cameron's address to Jamaican legislators.

The British government, however, didn't only have prisons on the agenda during Cameron's visit. He, for instance, unveiled £300 million for infrastructure projects in the Caribbean as well as £100 million of export financing for UK firms doing business in Jamaica.

Whatever the merits of those packages, the prison idea - this newspaper believed then, and does now - deserved a broader and more nuanced analysis than it received. It embraces adherence to, and respect for, human rights and how, as a society, we treat people whose liberty the State has temporarily deprived them of.

 

OLD FACILITIES

 

Jamaica's two major prisons are Dickensian-style workhouses, designed for punishment rather than rehabilitation and reform. Despite the best efforts of policymakers and administrators, these old facilities are incapable of substantial physical overhaul.

And not only are they antiquated, they are overcrowded. Between them, they house around 3,000 inmates, more than 40 per cent over their combined capacity. In other words, the inmates of Jamaican prisons live in inhumane conditions.

Jamaican governments have long talked of building a new state-of-the-art facility, but have been unable to afford it. The British proposal opened a possibility. Indeed, the prisoners who would be repatriated to complete their sentences in Jamaica would account for less than a third of the population of the facility. The offer, in the circumstances, is not one that we believe should be dismissed out of hand, once the agreement is designed to preserve the rights of those prisoners who would be sent to Jamaica and that this island's taxpayers would bear no costs for their return.

We hope that the Government's delay in answering the questions is because the Government has had second thoughts on the matter and it is working out how to frame the shift.