Cameron's prison gift
So we're getting a prison. GREAT! Last Tuesday, I turned on my TV and saw Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller standing by a plane. She was waiting on British PM David Cameron to descend.
Our prime minister is the descendant of slaves and speaks frequently of her humble beginnings. Cameron is listed by Rich List as having a net worth of US$50 million with an aristocratic background linked to the royal family. His wife is also immensely wealthy and of similar pedigree.
But he has something in common with our PM. His forefathers owned slaves on a plantation little more than an abeng's howl from where our PM was born and were handsomely compensated when slavery ended.
Reparations were what most of us wanted to hear about, but in his speech in Parliament, he made it as clear as is possible for a British, Eton-educated aristocrat that reparation is not on his agenda. After all, he was already contributing to a prison. A similar offer was made to former PM Bruce Golding and he told them where they could put it.
Golding's protege, Andrew Holness, remarked in that same session in Parliament that schools would be more helpful than prisons. It was left to the Japanese prime minister, who visited that same day, to suggest assistance with education.
PREGNANT WITH IRONY
I wondered if any of the parliamentarians failed to observe that this entire visit was pregnant with irony. Aggregate total wealth of all private households in Great Britain was, in 2012, £9.5 trillion, and half of all households have a total wealth of £218,400. The slave trade and slave labour contributed in no small way to the comfortable and secure existence of the British today.
But those were the slave owners. In Jamaica, we, the descendants of slaves, cannot afford health care, education infrastructure at a level that can guarantee a level of comfort and security because we are reeling under a system of debt repayment that condemns us to persistent poverty.
Britain does not, on the face of it, seem to be having a serious problem with its prison system. There was a claim that 69 of its 124 prisons were 'overcrowded', but this really means two, instead of one, to a cell. The US has 41,000 persons serving life sentences without parole. Britain has 41.
Another troubling problem for them is that although the provision of accredited and non-accredited programmes was widespread in prison, a strategic approach had not been developed and too many offenders were leaving prison without their offending behaviour being addressed.
But a raft of new initiatives have been introduced and are showing measurable success. This leaves one to speculate as to the real motive for wanting to send offenders with foreign ties out of the country.
All modern and progressive jurisdictions are now exploring alternatives to incarceration. The US has less than five per cent of the world's population. Yet, with an incarceration rate of 726 persons per 100,000, it has nearly 25 per cent of the world's prisoners, primarily because they insist on locking up persons for a variety of harmless social crimes. This has proven to be costly.
California made headlines last year when the amount budgeted for corrections surpassed that earmarked for higher education. The cost of accommodating one prisoner in some places is the same as tuition at an elite university. Some Jamaicans may find this unbelievable, but that's just because we treat our brothers and sisters in prison little better than rats and cockroaches.
It is said that the US has reached a 'reform moment' for prison policy. This is proving to be a great success. Persons with mental illnesses who are arrested for drug possession, trespassing and non-violent offences are no longer sent to jail where they may never get treatment. Courts are now established to give them the treatment and supervision they need.
This approach has been extremely successful. Their first Drug Court was established in 1989. Today, there are more than 1,500 of them. Similar initiatives in California have reduced recidivism. Arrest rates for those in these programmes declined by 85 per cent, conviction rates by 77 per cent and incarceration rates by 83 per cent. The Obama administration has given a commitment to funding and evaluating the long-term effects of these programmes.
In Britain, similar initiatives are working, primarily through Restorative Justice and Community Order initiatives. In 2008, offenders discharged from immediate custodial sentences committed more reoffences than offenders given community orders with a difference of 80.3 reoffences per 100 offenders.
Over 65,500 persons successfully completed community payback sentences. This amounted to more than 8.3 million hours of unpaid work, which was used to benefit the community. Evaluation of a Transition to Adulthood Project found that, over a six-month period, only nine per cent reoffended (all non-violent). The number in employment trebled and the number classified as not in education, employment and training halved.
In 2012, a poll of victims of low-level crime showed that 70 per cent support community sentences as an alternative to prison. More recently, only 11 per cent of respondents to a poll believe that increasing the number of offenders in prison would 'do most' to reduce crime in Britain.
Are there any lessons that we can learn about progressive alternatives to our present system? Does anyone really believe that anything good can come from the nasty, stinking squalor that we call a 'corrections' system? And what of the children left behind? Who takes care of them? One statistic that alarmed Americans recently was when it was revealed that two million children had at least one parent in prison.
A more progressive approach would see:
- Courts given more sentencing options.
- Savings for taxpayers.
- Strengthening of families and communities.
- Reduction of crime.
- Home confinement/electronic home monitoring (offender pays all costs).
- Fines and restitution.
- Halfway houses.
- Community service
- Restorative justice.
- Mental-health courts.
- Sex-offender treatment and civil commitment.
- Non-custodial sentences for non-violent crimes.
Mr Cameron, we must remember, was elected by the British citizenry to do what's best for Britain. There is nothing in his job description that obliges him to take care of our business. But I must confess to some mild annoyance when he comes here to propose the same solutions his forefathers employed centuries ago. His proposal would require us to find about J$5.5 billion, initially, when we can't pay our public servants or provide decent health care. May I suggest that we move swiftly to place these new prisoners on parole.
I must emphasise that it is time for us to start taking care of ourselves. We need persons in positions that feel some pressure to think creatively and progressively. Solutions to many of our problems are well within our grasp.