Fri | Jan 15, 2021

Damion Mitchell | Broader Band-Aid for the big prison sore

Published:Sunday | October 25, 2020 | 12:15 AM
Damion Mitchell

Just over a week ago, shortly after a press conference by the Government at which it was announced that stiffer laws are coming for contraband in prisons, I sent a riddle to a few of my colleagues.

It read: “A sore breaks out because the cut was not being treated. The Government gets a bigger band aid to cover the sore. What you call that?” My colleagues’ answers were different, but there was only one theme: insanity. For me, though, it was more than just insanity. It was deeply disappointing.

At the same time Matthew Samuda, the minister without portfolio with responsibility for the correctional service, was announcing that tougher prison laws are coming in another three months, he should be detailing a new policy to reform Jamaica’s 11 correctional institutions with keen focus on effective rehabilitation and proper preparation for reintegration.

In other words, he should be telling Jamaicans that a structured new programme of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is coming where inmates will have more than three minutes a week to contact their relatives. He should have also been saying that under this new programme, mothers and fathers behind bars would be allowed supervised, recorded telephone contacts with their children outside of regular school hours. Good grief! Who came up with this system now in place?

Samuda should have also been revealing the analysis of DCS data that between January 2015 and June 2020, some 42 per cent of prisoners were re-offenders. In other words, 42 out of every 100 convicts behind bars had previously been found guilty of another crime.

Let that sink in!

The obvious question would be, why is the rate of reoffending so high?


Aside from the facts that the likelihood of being caught is low and that the deterrents may not be sufficient, next to zero happens in the prisons with a view to rehabilitating inmates. What exist are unstructured, understaffed programmes that are as consistent as cell phone coverage across the countryside. And there is no reason this should be so.

From as early as 2015, the auditor general ‘disturbed’ the DCS from its slumber when it revealed that the rate of reoffending was closer to 50 per cent, not the 27 per cent with which the correctional service had long sat in complacency. The fact is that the DCS had not been counting as reoffenders inmates previously given non-custodial sentences.

It was only counting as reoffenders convicts who previously served time behind bars. And still, some who previously served time may have missed the tally. All that is possible when categorising prisoners depends on the physical scanning of huge, thick books that record their details, or, simply, the recall of correctional officers to determine whether the ‘new’ admission is a familiar face.

Here s what the auditor general wrote in the 2014 performance review of the DCS:

“Over the five years 2008 to 2013, DCS’ reported an average reoffending rate of 27 per cent. We used information on inmates’ penal records maintained by DCS to recalculate the reoffending rate for the 226 adult inmates in our sample. Using the DCS method, the reoffending rate would be 29 per cent. However, when inmates with previous non-custodial sentences are included, the rate rises to 51 per cent. Consequently, information provided by DCS to their stakeholders, such as the Ministry of National Security could negatively impact strategic decisions.”

For those with vision, hiding in plain sight is a possible solution to the recidivism headache: there must be a rigid programme of rehabilitation. It is not a new call. The auditor general had also flagged it in her 2015 DCS performance review.

“The Government has, over a four-year period, been giving the DCS in excess of 90 per cent of its requested sums for rehabilitation,” the report read. “Nevertheless, ‎each year, the DCS spends less than it requested, and, in fact, spent $60 million less than was allocated for rehabilitation over the four-year period (2009/10 – 2013/14).”


Still, the AG found that rehabilitation programmes were almost non-existent, raising the questions: On what programmes were some $2 billion spent? Who were the programme administrators? And where is the performance review/appraisal of these rehabilitation programmes?

So yes, tough new statutes outlawing contraband, primarily electronic devices, are necessary. After all, it has been proven that some inmates have used these technologies to order killings from behind bars and further direct their criminal enterprises. However, in the absence of a comprehensive approach to the prison deficiencies, the Government may just be putting a broader Band-Aid on the big prison sore.

As reported by The Gleaner several years ago, the prison gold called cell phones is smuggled into cells by correctional officers. Declaring cell phones in prisons a crime, making smuggling an offence, and imposing stiff penalties may only result in a hiking of the ‘fees’ to bring in the precious metal.

Among the considerations must also be the installation of state-of-the-art X-ray scanners at the points of entry in these facilities, efficient accountability systems, and renewed training for those who have sworn to serve and to guide. But, again, simply introducing tough new laws will only continue the cycle of futility.

Damion Mitchell is the integration editor at The Gleaner. Send feedback to