Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Carla Gullotta | Small steps matter

Published:Friday | January 27, 2017 | 1:00 AM

Understandably, there have been mixed views about the Government's rejection of an offer from the British to help Jamaica build a new prison. The original outcry that followed the initial offer made during the visit of former prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, and the cost-sharing arrangement written into the fine print of the offer must have been difficult considerations for the Government to balance against the desperate need for a modern maximum-security prison in Jamaica.

Now that the Government has taken what it feels is the best decision, we will have to continue to hope that other international partners will come forward with a more agreeable offer. Until such time, however, we will simply have to focus on taking small steps that can have a huge impact in terms of improving the state of the correctional facilities that we currently have. The most pressing problem affecting correctional facilities is overcrowding, and as such, the move by the Ministry of National Security to audit and reclassify prisoners is a step in the right direction.

 

Strategic approach

 

The reclassification of prisoners will go a long way in freeing up space in these correctional facilities and allow for a more strategic approach to management of the prison population and the rehabilitation they should be undertaking while behind bars.

Another critical benefit of the reclassification exercise

is that it will guide the correctional authorities in identifying low-risk prisoners who will then serve their sentences under house arrest instead of behind bars. These prisoners should be engaged in productive activities such as painting schools, cleaning gullies and building better community spaces. This initiative will help the Government to save money and will help the ex-inmates to be reintegrated into their communities with a more positive approach.

Sustained rehabilitation programmes have been proven to reduce the likelihood of convicts becoming repeat offenders once they are released from prison. With an estimate of at least 47 per cent of inmates being repeat offenders, our efforts at improving the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes have to be scaled up.

More professional people are needed if the institutions want to upgrade their activities, and therefore, warders working on rehabilitation should get more training and better pay.

 

Improve rehabilitation

 

Stand Up For Jamaica, through funding from the European Union, has been able to achieve some measure of success in working with the Department of Correctional Services to deliver rehabilitation in the form of psychological care, educational services and skills training. The effectiveness of these efforts will no doubt be improved in a less crowded prison environment.

Such an environment should provide for a more targeted intervention, particularly in light of the fact that more accurate data on the actual rehabilitation needs of inmates will be available from the audit and reclassification exercise currently being concluded by the Ministry of National Security.

The law should not be a shackle, and therefore, the move to amend legislation that restricts judges to only sending convicts to the Tower Street and St Catherine correctional facilities is yet another simple but effective step that is being taken to address the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of these facilities.

Let us hope that this amendment does not languish in the Parliament, but is given some urgency. It is really a miscarriage of justice when the country's two oldest prisons are bursting at the seams while other correctional facilities around the country are housing less than half their capacity.

The steps being taken to address the issues of overcrowding through the reclassification exercise indicate that the human rights and the right to dignity of incarcerated Jamaicans do not have to suffer because of resource constraints. It is high time we stop shooting ourselves in the foot by perpetuating a correctional system that has been proven to produce more hardened prisoners as its major output.

If prison is to serve as a place where criminals go to be reformed and get an opportunity to return to the society as more productive citizens, we will have to take the steps to create a mindset and an environment that focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment and the obliteration of human rights. Our safety and efforts at quelling the crime monster depends on it.

- Carla Maria Gullotta is executive director of Stand Up For Jamaica, a human-rights groups that carries out rehabilitation work with inmates in the island's correctional facilities.