Fri | Nov 24, 2017

Editorial | Gov’t should grasp opportunity

Published:Friday | July 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM

A few weeks ago, as his administration ran up the white flag on its need to access the National Housing Trust for cash to keep its International Monetary Fund-monitored fiscal programme afloat, Prime Minister Andrew Holness rejected the move as either capitulation or cynicism. Rather, it was a practical, commonsensical and realistic act by a sober government.

Why have money locked up and underused in a rich agency while the macroeconomy runs aground? Prime Minister Holness has another opportunity to exercise the same kind of pragmatism for the benefit of Jamaica.

Britain's outgoing high commissioner here has made it known that the door remains open for the Jamaican authorities to resume talks on the UK's offer of £25 million towards a new, state-of-the-art maximum-security prison.

"If the Government were ever to want to discuss it (the prison offer) again, my door would be open, as with my colleagues in London," David Fitton said in an interview.

Six months ago, Mr Holness' administration jettisoned the proposal, which was being discussed with its predecessor. That decision then, and remains now, illogical and unreasoned. For insofar as it has made a case for the verdict, the Government offered a hazy explanation that the British cash would pay for only a portion of the new prison, and something about going in new directions about adult correction.

 

POLITICAL OPPORTUNISM

 

But stripped to its core, what really happened was a manoeuvre in political opportunism.

Jamaica has two maximum-security prisons, which, combined, house around 3,000 inmates, or nearly twice as many as their official capacity. Both are nearly 300 years old. They are impervious to serious modernisation.

Stated bluntly, Jamaican prisoners at these institutions, and the warders who oversee them, exist in squalor that undermines their dignity and breaches their human rights. The United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International, and other human-rights agencies have commented on the state of these prisons and other detention facilities in Jamaica.

The British offer to help didn't come without a caveat. They wanted, starting in 2020, to repatriate up to 600 Jamaicans serving sentences of at least four years in British jails and had up to 18 months left of their time. The economic model for their upkeep in Jamaica was under discussion with the former government.

 

POPULISM TRUMPS LOGIC

 

But by the time it became a public matter in late 2015, a general election was in the air and Caribbean governments and intellectuals were pressing the United Kingdom about reparations for slavery. There was a confluence of all these things when the then British Prime Minister David Cameron, in 2015, and Mr Holness, at that time in Opposition, used the opportunity to lecture him in Parliament about the efficacy of schools and education rather than prisons.

The populist overture resonated with many people. The dignity and rights of prisoners and how the state of the facilities in which they are incarcerated perhaps contributed to a high rate of recidivism were ignored.

Significantly, while hinting at economics in the formal announcement of its rejection of the deal, the administration never mentioned the renegotiation of terms, which is an obvious option in such circumstances. It's not pragmatic to deliberately remove one's nose, which more than spoils one face. We would rather save nose and face, as well as have a prison in which prisoners are housed humanely.