Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Editorial | Cutting off the Gov’t’s nose

Published:Monday | January 16, 2017 | 1:00 AM

There is good sense in the proverb about cutting off one's nose and spiting one's face. It is about people doing things not in their best interests or in pursuance of good sense, merely to stand for ceremony, or to save face. This is what the Holness administration has done by rejecting the British offer of a £25-million contribution towards the construction of a new maximum-security prison.

In the end, it is the human rights and the right to dignity of incarcerated Jamaicans that will suffer.

Of course, there would be a string attached to the offer. It would require, at some point while serving their terms in UK jails for crimes committed in Britain, that Jamaican nationals be repatriated to complete their sentences at home. The British, however, would have to meet the cost of their time served in Jamaica. The finer details of the agreement, however, had not been worked out by the time the People's National Party was voted from office 10 months ago.

The problem with the idea was that it was good, populist fodder for an opposition Party, temptingly served up by then British prime Minister David Cameron, when he visited Jamaica in the spring of 2015. The matter of reparation for slavery by Britain to its former colonies in the Caribbean was actively on the agenda. In that environment, the idea of offering to build a prison, in the absence of a full and nuanced discussion of the matter, while opposing compensation for slavery, was always going to be a fraught public relations exercise.

That problem was exacerbated by Mr Cameron's ham-fisted handling of the reparation question during his speech in the Jamaican Parliament. Essentially, he suggested that Jamaicans move on from slavery. It mattered little that Mr Cameron also offered other economic support to Jamaica.

It was an opportunity that Andrew Holness, then in opposition, didn't believe he could allow to pass. "Schools contribute more to economic growth and human development than do prisons," he rebuked Mr Cameron and the Jamaican authorities.

 

TERMS NOT BENEFICIAL

 

A climbdown by Mr Holness would be difficult. So, at the weekend in the Senate, his foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, confirmed that the administration, after months of uncertainty, had rejected the offer.

"Assistance with the construction of a maximum-security prison could be beneficial to Jamaica's Department of Correctional Services, depending on the terms and conditions on which it is offered, and the priority of such assistance as compared to other priorities of the Government of Jamaica," she finally said in a long-outstanding answer to an Opposition question. "This administration does not believe that the terms offered would be beneficial to Jamaica as a whole."

She added: "The matter is closed at this time."

In the meantime, Jamaican prisoners bear the consequences.

Jamaica's two maximum-security prisons are of an age and style that would fit easily on the pages of a Dickens novel. They were built, combined, to accommodate 3,000 inmates. They host 40 per cent more.

Given Jamaica's economic conditions and the tight fiscal circumstances within which the Government operates, the money is not available to build a new prison. Nor is it the most immediate priority. Yet, the conditions in which prisoners live impair their dignity and impinge their human rights. And there is a gash on the Government's nose.