Wed | Feb 19, 2020

Editorial | Maybe the Chinese could build new prison

Published:Tuesday | January 15, 2019 | 12:00 AM

It would be laughable were it not so serious. That's the only conclusion one could make after inmates of the Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, now housed at South Camp, took to Facebook Live on Sunday night to broadcast allegations of human-rights abuse by prison authorities. This wasn't the first time. Just last week, inmates went on the social-media portal to vent about a fellow prisoner who had stabbed another and posed a security risk to the incarcerated population.

Whether the inmates' claims are credible or not isn't the fundamental matter of concern. What is even more disturbing is that security measures at the women's prison are so appallingly poor that inmates could have easy access to contraband and communicate freely with the outside world.

The national security minister, Dr Horace Chang, must be shaken by the embarrassing state of affairs, but it is emblematic of the dysfunction and rot that attend Jamaica's corrections sector and the urgent need for overhaul.

This is a point on which there is no political divide, as there is overwhelming consensus that Jamaica's prisons, particularly its main maximum-security centres, at Tower Street, Kingston, and Spanish Town, St Catherine, are outdated hovels.


Medieval Holding Pens


As Arlington Turner, chairman of the Jamaica Federation of Corrections, said candidly last February, "The fact of the matter is that these prisons, Tower Adult Street and St Catherine District prison, cannot be repaired anymore."

But despite the avalanche of evidence, the Jamaican Government, across administrations, has been reticent about, and neglectful of, preserving the rights of inmates and providing the atmosphere and resources for their rehabilitation. For the criticism of Jamaican custodial centres has been that they are little more than medieval holding pens in which society's discards are leashed till their sentences elapse. Thereafter, they are released as misfits, having developed neither the civic values nor skill sets to make them productive members of society.

Jamaica's recidivism rate hovers somewhere between 25 and 29 per cent, which does not account for ex-convicts who are not arrested or successfully prosecuted for reoffending. Our prison population, generally, has been given short shrift, having been exposed to the penal consequences of incarceration but without the hope of readaptation and reintegration. The result: a bunch of brigands, buccaneers and irredeemables.


Funding new prison


It is the compelling case for reform that Jamaica's maximum-security prisons represent that demands immediate corrective action. The Holness Government had turned up its nose at the PS25-million offer by then British Prime Minister David Cameron towards construction of a state-of-the-art prison facility at which deportees from Britain would also stay for a short period before transitioning into the wider society.

Perhaps Mr Cameron's pledge was impolitic, a charge that was seized upon by sector groups who were offended by the thought of the former slave owners again placing shackles on the black majority. That might be understandable.

But what is impatient of debate is that whatever the source of funding for a modern prison, twiddling thumbs and kicking the can down the road will only make the project all the more expensive and daunting.

With the Jamaican Government not awash with cash for this multibillion-dollar initiative, Prime Minister Holness might be prodded to take advantage of the only game in town: the Chinese.

Beijing has sought to expand its geopolitical footprint in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has become the primary benefactor of the Jamaican State for major infrastructure works. We suspect that in spite of the hue and cry that will come from critics about the creeping neo-colonial invasion by the Chinese, the Beijing ambassador to Kingston would be open to talks about building out an impressive correctional centre of which Jamaicans could be proud. Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson Smith might even now be penning the invitation for dinner.