Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Editorial | The prison offer revisited

Published:Friday | March 3, 2017 | 3:00 AM

We are not surprised at Phillip Hollobone's outrage at Jamaica's decision to reject a prisoner-transfer deal with the United Kingdom and his hyperbolic suggestion that London send to Kingston the annual bill for the upkeep of nearly 600 of our citizens incarcerated in British jails.

For the Tory MP is a long-time campaigner for such schemes and has, in the past, called for Britain to cut off aid to foreign countries, including Jamaica, that fail to come aboard.

The good thing is that the British government is apparently unswayed by Mr Hollobone's peeve and accepts Jamaica's sovereign right to make the decision it did, while, as a spokesman told the Sun newspaper, remaining "committed to an excellent bilateral relationship across a range of issues, including security and prisoner transfers".

But the fact that Mr Hollobone may be a supercilious Englishman, obnoxious even, doesn't obviate the worth of the British offer. Nor does it change our position that the Holness administration was wrong to reject it.

Indeed, his intervention at this time, as well as the current discussion about discipline and oversight in Jamaica's prisons, provides an opportunity to revisit the issue and for the Government to display the pragmatism that has served it well over the past year and retreat - gingerly if it has to - from an untenable position.

The proposal was for Britain to contribute £25 million to the construction of a new, state-of-the-art prison capable of accommodating perhaps 2,000 inmates. But as part of the deal, Jamaica, starting in 2020, would repatriate those of its nationals serving sentences of four years or more in British prisons but had at least a year and a half left on their terms. Specific financial terms for accommodating these prisoners in Jamaica were to be determined.

But in late 2015 when the then British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the proposal in the Jamaican Parliament, the island was in election mode, so it was ridiculed by Andrew Holness, whose party was then in Opposition. It was contrasted as a choice between education and a prison, and that Britain and the then government opted for the latter.

 

DECREPIT AND UNSUITABLE

 

That stance might have been good election politics, but bad for human rights. But for the fact that the construction of one preceded his birth by about 100 years, Jamaica's two maximum-security male prisons might have been conjured from the pages of a Dickens novel, and perhaps offer no better conditions than those suffered by the detainees, before their execution of the Morant Bay Rebellion.

Not only are they decrepit and unsuitable for modern notions of prisoner rehabilitation, they house nearly twice as many inmates than for which they were designed. United Nations human-rights agencies often criticise the circumstances within which Jamaican prisoners are kept.

Jamaican governments, however, often cite their inability to afford a new prison for this situation, which, in a way, is the basis of the current administration's disingenuous argument for rejecting the British offer. According to the security minister, Robert Montague, a new prison will cost £40 million, while the Brits only offered £25 million. More than half!

Cost, frankly, is not the real issue. Politics is. In the presence of Mr Cameron, with the question of reparation as the backdrop and an election in the air, Mr Holness calculated a stance that would win votes. He fears now that a retreat will be to lose face.