Tue | Oct 23, 2018

Canute Thompson | Why scorn UK prison break?

Published:Friday | October 27, 2017 | 12:00 AM

It appears that the Government is either being disingenuous about its reasons for rejecting the offer from the United Kingdom to partially fund the construction of a new maximum-security facility or is evolving its position and wants to prepare the public for its new position.

My view is informed by recent comments attributed to the minister of state in the Ministry of National Security, Senator Pearnel Charles Jr. In an October 18, 2017, story, The Gleaner reports that the minister, in addressing a meeting of the Rotary Club of Mandeville, stated that there was not much detail about the discussions between the former administration and the British government regarding the offer to provide PS5 million to help construct a new prison. According to the report, Minister Charles stated that it was the insufficiency of the information that led the GOJ to reject the offer.

But how could Minister Charles make such a claim given the following facts:

On the occasion of the visit of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition Andrew Holness responded to the announcement of the offer by saying that Jamaica did not need prisons, it needed schools, and as such, declared his party's firm opposition to the deal. That was not a position in search of information. That was an outright rejection.

Upon assuming office, the Government indicated its lack of interest in the deal and in response, Senator Lambert Brown tabled questions in the Parliament concerning the deal on July 15, 2017. The answers to those questions were due on August 5, 2017, but nine weeks later on, October 16, 2017, the leader of government business in the Senate could only say that she was awaiting a response from the Ministry of National Security. There seemed to be a lot of research taking place, for another three months would elapse before the answers came.

When the answers came on January 13, 2017, six months after the questions were tabled, leader of government business Senator Kamina Johnson Smith stated specifically and emphatically that "the terms that they (UK) have provided are not beneficial to Jamaica as a whole, and so we (Government) have rejected it". so says a report in the Jamaica Observer on the said date.




In an interview on Radio Jamaica's morning programme Smile Jamaica on January 16, 2017, Senator Johnson Smith firmly reiterated the Government's stance, declaring, "The minister of national security ... announced ... additional programmes to reduce the prison population." She again stated that "... what has been offered (is) not ... in the best interest of the Jamaican people ... ."

Following Johnson Smith's reasoned statement of the Government's refusal, the minister of national security on January 17, 2017, stated that Jamaica would need to find "an additional PS32m to construct the prison - a sum which the taxpayers cannot afford at this time". (I recall remarking then that the country had just been slapped with an unnecessary tax of the said PS32m to provide 78,000 people with a $1.5m tax break).

But the minister had insisted that "while the country's prison system needs to be upgraded, the prison deal is not in the best interest of the country".The minister doubled down with the apparent talking point, stating that "... the rejection is not a rejection of the UK.The UK does things in their best interest, Jamaica must do the same".

The minister went even further to illustrate his knowledge of the deal and the prison conditions in Jamaica, arguing that there was no overpopulation in the local prison system as there is a capacity for 3,684 persons and a population of 3,611. The minister added that under the UK deal, Jamaica "would have to accept 600 people serving time in British prisons, many of whom are only Jamaican by descent".


Knowledge of key elements


So contrary to the claims of the learned senator, Pearnel Charles, the Government has knowledge of the key elements of the offer, and on the basis of that knowledge, rejected it as not being "in the best interest of the country".

It should be pointed out, however, that Minister Montague's proclamation that the deal would require Jamaica to accept 600 UK prisoners is factually misleading. The proposed deal provided for 300 spaces to be reserved for UK prisoners, so at no time would there be more than 300 persons from the UK completing their sentence in Jamaica. This detail was provided to the public from 2015.

The Government's approach to this prison matter may be described as fiddling while Rome is burning when one considers that:

Amnesty International described the conditions under which inmates at the two maximum-security facilities are held as subhuman; and the NWA's physical assessment of both facilities found that the buildings posed a clear and present danger to staff and inmates.

Minister Montague's claim that there is no shortage of space in the prison system represents a disconnection from the real issue. Can it be okay to keep staff and inmates in subhuman conditions?

- Dr Canute Thompson is a certified management consultant and lecturer in educational policy, planning and leadership at the School of Education, UWI.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.comcanutethompson1@gmail.com.