Sun | Nov 29, 2020

Editorial | Redefine penal labour

Published:Friday | August 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Prisoners being fed, getting fat and doing nothing to earn their keep is an old clichÈ describing inmates within Jamaica's penal system.

People expect prisoners to work, if even as payback to society. The image of an inmate who pays no tax, is given free accommodation, food, health care, and afforded loads of leisure time to watch television or left to enjoy soon-to-be-implemented conjugal visits is not one that the average citizen finds comforting.

And with the burgeoning crime rate, there has been a growing clamour for prisoners to work and contribute to some kind of victims' restitution fund as a way to get offenders to repay the debt they owe for their criminal actions.

All of this is suggesting that it is high time that the issue of penal labour be thoroughly examined. For one, the idea of an inmate doing time at hard labour needs to be properly defined, for it becomes almost laughable to hear such sentences being pronounced from the Bench when there appears to be no practical understanding of what constitutes hard labour and how that portion of the sentence is satisfied.

National Security Minister Robert Montague has said in the past that he firmly believes that the hard-labour portion of prison sentences ought to be followed. The Department of Correctional Services reported earlier this year that inmates are, in fact, undertaking hard labour. Whether making uniforms, baking bread or carrying out maintenance services qualifies as hard labour, or even whether these activities fit the crimes, is hotly debated from time to time.

Of course, the carrying out of these sentences must accord with the guidelines of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) that sets out what is considered good practice for the treatment of prisoners.

Bearing all of the above in mind, it seems that it is now necessary for a review of penal labour. We submit that consideration ought to be given to having prisoners who have been assessed as low-security risk do tasks such as patching potholes, clearing roadways to boost recycling efforts, and assisting in improving the physical plant at the nation's infirmaries, as well as undertaking beautification projects.

Recently, Mr Montague disclosed that inmates were planting produce and rearing chickens to feed the prison population. And so they should. Prisoners, as we say, are expected to work. By producing some of their food, they are reducing the burden on taxpayers.

In the same vein, we welcome the announcement that the prison population will become part of an agricultural programme starting at the Richmond correctional facility in St Mary, which houses low-risk offenders.

Many of the persons who find themselves in prison are unskilled and illiterate. If they leave prison without any improvement, they are likely to reoffend. Currently, evidence suggests that the recidivism rate is at a staggering 47 per cent.

The SMRs suggested that one of the most efficient ways to protect society against crime is to ensure that released prisoners are equipped to lead a law-abiding life. We, therefore, applaud all efforts aimed at offering prisoners opportunities to learn new skills and get certified in preparation for life after prison. The collaboration with HEART is an excellent idea that we hope will be successful in equipping inmates for social reintegration.