Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Editorial | Time to talk more about prisons with Britain?

Published:Monday | November 23, 2020 | 12:06 AM

Although not without a tinge of irony, this newspaper notes, and welcomes, Jamaica’s acceptance of a £620,000 gift from Britain (J$117.4 million) to help combat the problems of recidivism and that of the island’s prisons.

“The facts are that reoffending rates are critically too high in a country that has grappled with the issue of violent crimes for far too long,” said Matthew Samuda, the junior minister of national security, at a function last week with Britain’s High Commissioner Asif Ahmad, to announce the project. “The truth is, to truly transform our facilities, not just in infrastructure, but in procedures and care, it will take partnerships like this.”

The partnership of which Mr Samuda spoke includes ongoing training of staff in the correctional services, as well as to develop and deliver programmes that enhance the social and economic skills of at-risk inmates. Ex-offenders and parolees are trained in areas such as bee rearing and breeding ornamental fish. Which makes sense.

Around 30 per cent of people who are sent to prison each year are repeat offenders. A larger part of the problem, to which Mr Samuda alluded, is that many of the convicts enter the facilities from socially dysfunctional environments. They have little education, even less training, and few real skills with which to make a legitimate livelihood. Most leave the same way. Or worse. In other words, Jamaica’s major prisons remind us of 18th-century – where Charles Dickens’ characters would not feel out of place – incarceration is like finishing school for dysfunction and crime.

MUSEUM RELICS

A big issue is overcrowding. For example, the two maximum security prisons, the Tower Street and Spanish Town correctional centres, combined, have a capacity for around 3,000 inmates. Usually, they have about a third more prisoners than they should reasonably accommodate. Neither, it is widely accepted, do they have the capacity for modernisation. They ought, really, to be museum relics.

Indeed, Jamaica has, for decades, talked about building a state-of-the-art maximum security prison where serious efforts at rehabilitation can also take place. The Government has not been able to afford it. That is a problem that is likely to worsen in the near term, given the cratering of the economy because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than five years ago Britain offered Jamaica £25 million, about half of the cost, towards building such a prison – but with a proviso. Jamaicans serving time in the United Kingdom, and nearing the end of their terms, would be repatriated to end their sentences here, for which the Government would be paid. The former People’s National Party administration was keen on the project. But when David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, visited Jamaica in 2015, the proposal was ridiculed by Andrew Holness, the current Jamaican leader, who was then in Opposition.

Mr Holness’ suggestion then was that the British preferred to offer Jamaicans prisons rather than schools. When Mr Holness came to office in 2016, his Government allowed the project to languish before rejecting it, although his foreign minister claimed otherwise.

More recently, the national security minister, Horace Chang, confirmed the rejection, positing it as a wish to approach the matter “in our manner and in our culture”, without which “we will not succeed in the long term”. Whatever that means, the fact is that in 2015, Mr Holness took a political decision which he calculated would be popular and would bring him votes. It probably did. The result is that Jamaican prisoners are still languishing in the 18th-century style workhouses.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to broaden the scope of its conversation with the British on prisons.