Wed | Oct 18, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | Love among the ruins

Published:Sunday | July 30, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I'm reading the Gleaner editorial 'Conjugal visits as prisons collapse' and thinking: So what exactly is the incentive to avoid a life of crime now? There's little chance of being apprehended. If apprehended, there's little chance of being convicted. And if convicted, yuh can gwaan check yuh girl!

That is, of course, a bit too cynical. But just a bit. Because this new conversation about conjugal visits is allowing us a peek into the national psyche and it's not all pretty in there.

Let's start with that Gleaner editorial which has - correctly, I might add - contrasted the reformist aura of the security minister's plan to permit conjugal visits with the continued rejection of England's £25 million which would go towards building a modern prison. The newspaper rightly points to the issue of stilted misshapen priorities.

That's how I see it too. It's all about what a society considers intolerable. And as far as I am concerned, our unique priorities are clear and becoming clearer by the minute. It used to be that no suffering was too extreme fi de dutty murderer dem. But now, surprisingly, some suffering is too much and goes beyond the pale of what is tolerable. Let's acknowledge this as a sort of 'progress'.

The new consensus, I imagine, is that we can deprive a man of adequate space and stuff him in a cell with seven other men. That's cool. Having placed him like that, we want to hear no mention of condoms being distributed, for after all, is pure man in deh, so why would that argument arise? We can give him a bucket in which to do his business, toilets being a luxury. We might feed him substandard food.

 

CRUEL AND UNSUAL PUNISHMENT

 

However, we cannot deprive a man of access to pums. That now ... THAT would be uncivilised! Can a man live with vermin? OK. Yes. That we can stomach. Can a man live without punanny? No. That is cruel and unusual punishment. Something must be done! Wi waan Justisssss!

So where is this magic supposed to happen?

Arlington Turner, the chairman of the Federation of Correctional Officers had this to say of the Tower Street (19th century) and St Catherine (18th century) adult correctional facilities: "What we have today cannot facilitate those kinds of visits."

I wonder if Mr Turner isn't being a tad too fastidious. After all, love is known to blossom on even very hard earth, and notoriously has a mind of its own. It's not as if, as a people, we've shown that we need ideal conditions in which to fulfil the Biblical mandate to be fruitful. We tend to get on with it.

But these are special circumstances, and we cannot forget that we are talking about wards of the state. So the surroundings would have to reflect the gravity of the state-sponsored love.

Which is why I'm envisioning that this new thrust of the security minister could be the catalyst for a spate of prison construction. But it would likely be an expensive retrofit.

For starters, the place would have to be secure with Barbadian-type searches a prerequisite so that nobody can enter or leave with an unnatural weapon.

Then, prison is stressful, and time would be limited. So the surroundings would have to be extra-specially arranged. Mahogany bed, air conditioning, and unlocked cable channels are necessities in this circumstance.

Can anyone say "NHT draw down"? Why not? Jacuzzi to mi ting.

We also know that no self-respecting politician can allow a grand opening to go without adequate stamping. That is basic. No highway is opened without one taking the first drive, no hospital ward refurbished without another lying in the bed, and no bicycle donated to the police without a minister taking a first spin. So is there a plan for who will test out the upcoming new facilities?

To be clear, I did not accept the reasoning that we should reject the British prison money, and the haughty moralism on which that rejection was grounded strikes me as the rankest hypocrisy.

Collectively, we managed to ignore our continuing ill-treatment of our fellow citizens while working ourselves into a mighty frenzy about reparations for 18th-century wrongs. I suppose a critical ingredient in avoiding self-recognition is assigning responsibility for one's condition to others.

But surely Independence means something, including that we take responsibility for our own national life, with all its triumphs and failings. It's no good patting ourselves on the back for the good stuff, while excusing all the negatives as the responsibility of "the colonialists". Or rather, it seems obvious to me that we lose the authority to take credit if we don't also shoulder the discredit.

We either want the Independence or we don't. We either assume responsibility or we do not. Ain't no half-steppin'!

Somewhat of an aside: remember that part of the supposedly great insult was the planned return of Jamaica's own citizens to serve sentences here. We felt "dem belongs ova desso".

Now, how often have I heard that Mr Trump is an atavist for desiring a wall to obstruct the free flow of Mexican citizens? But look at us! Forget about just rejecting poor and bedraggled non-nationals, we were - and are - comfortable with rejecting even our own citizens, and in fact, account for that rejection with the high science of historical retributionism.

I mean, consider all the white elephants littering the Jamaican landscape as products of our own genius. That bus park in West Kingston comes to mind. So does the Trelawny stadium. We could've built a new prison facility if we cared at all about the prisoners, but we do not. For the prisoner's fate is nothing compared to the ginning up of votes.

Still, all is not lost. At least we have determined that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every sort of cabin stabbin' and draws tearin', even when incarcerated.

It hardly needs adding that some of those fellas suffering long sentences will be very grateful. In fact, it might require one of those Special Zones to contain their enthusiasm.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com