Sat | Nov 18, 2017

Editorial | Conjugal visits as prisons collapse

Published:Friday | July 28, 2017 | 12:07 AM

Robert Montague is prone to muddling his priorities. In this case, it is the welfare of prisoners.

On Monday, addressing the biennial Diaspora Conference, the national security minister announced a policy for private spousal visits for inmates of Jamaica's correctional facilities as part of efforts at rehabilitation. Nearly half of Jamaica's convicts custodial and non-custodial are repeat offenders.

"I am determined and insistent that we are going to start conjugal visits," Mr Montague said.

In jurisdictions where such visits happen, sex is usually allowed.

Clearly anticipating the public backlash that arrived, Mr Montague explained: "... Some people ask me why. We must treat ... (prisoners) in a humane way. A lot of us [say] that we are Christians, but true Christianity is when you do for the least amongst us. So, we are working on that."

Except, perhaps, for his penchant for flitting from initiative to initiative, without settling on something and getting it done, no one would question the validity of Mr Montague's intent and the Christian values with which it is underpinned. But as Arlington Turner, the chairman of the Federation of Correctional Officers, pointed out, Mr Montague is placing the horse way ahead of the cart a fact he might have discovered had he discussed the policy with stakeholders before its public declaration.

"What we have today (the correctional centres) cannot facilitate those kinds of visits," Mr Turner complained. Indeed, the two maximum-security prisoners, as Mr Turner noted, "are almost falling apart".

And that is the point about Mr Montague's, and the Holness administration's, muddled priorities.

The Tower Street and St Catherine adult correctional centres are, respectively, Victorian-era and early 18th-century facilities. They are long past their usefulness for the purpose they serve. They are severely overcrowded, and as fervently as the authorities may try, they are incapable of modernisation. Indeed, housing prisoners in these facilities may well be challengeable on the grounds of cruel and inhumane punishment. Yet, the administration of which Mr Montague is a member, in a cynical display of political opportunism, walked away from our best opportunity to do something about.

Jamaica has long talked about building a state-of-the art prison. We have been unable to afford it.

In 2015, during the time of the former administration, the British government offered £25 million, or 40 per cent of the cost of a new facility. Their condition, however, was that starting in 2020, up to 600 Jamaicans serving sentences of at least four years in British jails would be sent home to complete their time once they had up to 18 months left of their sentences. A compensation arrangement was to be negotiated.

At the time, though, a general election was in the air, and it was an opportunity for Prime Minister Andrew Holness, then in Opposition, to use parliamentary remarks in the presence of then British PM David Cameron to slap down the deal. The implication was that the Brits were offering Jamaica imprisonment rather than education. That made for good theatre and populist, expedient politics. It was bad for Jamaican prisoners and their human rights.

David Fitton, recently the UK's high commissioner to Jamaica, said London would willingly reopen the discussion with Kingston. The Government should.