Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Senate's wait for update on UK prison offer continues

Published:Friday | December 16, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Pearnel Charles Jr

Just what is taking the Andrew Holness administration almost five months to answer a Senate question on the status of the United Kingdom's J$5.5 billion offer to help build a modern prison here is not certain, and it is not clear whether that answer will come in what is expected to be today's last sitting for 2016.

Lambert Brown, an opposition member, on July 15, tabled the politically sensitive questions, which were due for answer on August 5. No answer could be provided then as the Senate was on summer recess. It resumed sittings on September 23 and has met eight times since, with no answer forthcoming.

Pearnel Charles Jr, a government senator and junior minister in the National Security Ministry, told The Gleaner after last week's sitting that an answer was on its way.

"We can anticipate that they will be answered in short order," he said, before adding that he would understand doubts about his statements since similar responses were given previously by Kamina Johnson Smith, the leader of government business in the Senate. "I think there's a procedure that has been put in place that might be causing some delay. That will be rectified, [but] I agree that it needs to be dealt with."

The issue is sensitive for the prime minister because while leading the Opposition last year, he told then British Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced the deal, that the money would be better spent on education. "Educating our people, particularly in skills, is the best way to spur human development. Building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons."

Charles Jr asserted that there had been no change in their stance. "The position has not changed. Our policy and our direction when it comes on to the correctional institutions is not to increase the numbers, but to put in place the kind of activities and programmes that will cause for it to be reduced".

"I think what we have to do is look at these things in the context of all of the terms and conditions of those discussions, and that is something that I am ready and willing and hoping to have in a robust discussion at the appropriate time. It is not for me to speak on it now."

The Portia Simpson Miller administration had faced sustained public backlash over the offer many felt was an "insult" from Great Britain, the former colonial powers from whom Jamaican gained Independence. It was fuelled after Cameron told Jamaica to "move on" from the slavery past in dismissing reparation calls.

The United Kingdom (UK) said the prison offer was part of a deal that would see the transfer of prisoners of Jamaican heritage in the UK. They would be sent back here to serve out their sentences. Jamaica would also have to find the remaining 60 per cent of the cost to build the 1,500-bed prison.

The Simpson Miller administration insisted that a deal was not struck, but up to yesterday, the UK government's website (www.gov.uk) maintained that "more than 300 Jamaican prisoners serving time in British jails will be returned back to Jamaica to serve their sentence under an agreement signed by the UK and Jamaica today (September 30, 2015)".

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com