Rejected ... Pressure on Holness to give reasons for refusing $5.5bn UK prison offer
Pressure is growing for the Andrew Holness administration to tell the public the full reasons for rejecting the $5.5 billion offer from the United Kingdom (UK) to help build a modern prison here.
The issue is politically sensitive for Holness, who, as opposition leader at the time of the announcement, said that the money would be better spent on education.
Yesterday, Kamina Johnson Smith, foreign affairs and foreign trade minister, told the Senate that the terms of the offer “were not beneficial to Jamaica as a whole”, and so the deal announced in September 2015 by then British Prime Minister David Cameron has been rejected.
What followed were a string of questions, which Johnson Smith declined to answer, citing national security concerns and saying that discussions between states were private.
“Has there been any attempt by this administration to renegotiate or to seek amendments to the terms and conditions given the dire need for a new prison and a modern prison to facilitate rehabilitation in the country?” asked opposition member Lambert Brown, who tabled the questions on the deal’s status from last July.
“I’m not sure it would be appropriate for me to share the nature of discussions and negotiations that may or may not have taken place between government officials on this matter,” Johnson Smith responded.
Mark Golding, leader of opposition business, questioned when the deal was rejected, but that, too, proved a challenge for Johnson Smith, who sought to appease by saying that she could seek clearance from the security ministry on what to reveal.
As frustrations grew, forcing interventions from the Senate president, Tom Tavares-Finson, the foreign minister admitted that the proposed transfer of 300 Jamaicans serving time in British jails was a reason for the rejection. She went no further.
If the Opposition wanted to know the terms of the offer, the minister suggested that they try to remember, noting that a memorandum of understanding to facilitate the deal was signed under the previous Portia Simpson Miller administration.
“Transparency, where is it?” Brown fired. Johnson Smith later accused the Opposition of “grandstanding”.
Prison conditions below minimum constitutional requirements
Public Defender Arlene Harrison-Henry is maintaining that current prison conditions are below minimum constitutional requirements and that more details were needed on the Government’s rejection of the UK offer.
“We would want to see a fuller discussion on this topic and also to have a clearer understanding of the proposed terms of the agreement. It would have to be mutually beneficial to all parties. The conditions under which our prisoners [exist] convicts and persons awaiting trial are horrific and below minimum acceptable national and international standards.”
Horace Levy, executive director of the rights group Jamaicans for Justice, said that Johnson Smith’s refusal to give answers was “unsatisfactory”. “The country cannot be told that they’re rejecting it and not know why they are rejecting it.”
The UK’s $5.5 billion for the 1,500-bed facility would only be 40 per cent of the cost. Jamaica would have to find the rest.
Up to September 2016, there were 556 Jamaicans in UK jails.