Tue | Oct 24, 2017

The fall of Armadale

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Ken Jones, Contributor

If you follow current commentary, the path could quite easily lead to the erroneous conclusion that the Armadale correctional facility was never anything much better than a cesspool of iniquity with everlasting conflict, wayward girls and wicked wardens bereft of conscience and compassion. You might even believe that this institution was established for no other purpose than to accelerate the degradation of troubled young females.

Read and listen to the utterances of the day and you might find it hard to believe that Armadale was once the pride of rehabilitation centres; with motherly supervisors and wards who consistently won prizes and trophies for their work in culinary arts and handicraft. People from abroad would call there to observe the results of good social work. They left impressed.

As a community relations practitioner at Kaiser Bauxite in the 1960s, I had occasion to visit Armadale when the girls there had won six trophies and earned an impressive number of certificates in the Culinary Arts Contest of the Independence Festival. The prizes were for main dishes, desserts and a liqueur they had prepared. So good was their presentation that quite often, the residents were hired to cook and cater for important functions in and around the community.

While cookery and home economics were what the girls seemed to prefer, they were also instructed in handcraft, housewifery, business education, poultry farming, rabbit rearing, horticulture and vegetable gardening. They learned more about the three Rs, first-aid practices and even childcare, for some of them had children of their own. The girls had guidance counselling by nurses from the family planning clinic, lectures by public-health officers on sexually transmitted diseases; and a chaplain conducted weekly religious meetings.

Facility

I once read the 1975 report on Armadale and saw that the teaching standards at the facility were improving. The report noted that of 19 girls who had taken the Jamaica School Certificate examination the year before, 18 were successful in one or more subjects, including English and mathematics.

The dizzying descent from that high to the present low did not happen in the last few years. I suspect that it began and continued with Jamaica's persistent economic decline and the gradual deterioration of family life, private and public behaviour, as well as the lowered quality of inter-personal relations throughout the society. Over the years, we as a people have hardened our hearts, lost our concern for one another and, without enough cash to care, we have been spending proportionately less and less on the rehabilitation of those who have succumbed to the hardships and temptations of the time. For youngsters at places such as Armadale, it must have been aggravated by the 1975 decision to reassign schools for rehabilitation from the Ministry of Development and Welfare to the ministry responsible for prisons and punishment.

Today's conditions are different from the gentler environment of yesteryear. We are now producing much more aggressive, opinionated, rebellious and even violent young people who grow up to be adults bearing a similar description. It is this same harsh and selfish society from which we are drawing practitioners in all fields of endeavour - cops and robbers, professionals, tradesmen, merchants, politicians and yes, correctional officers.

Errant youth

I don't know how carefully we screen those now entrusted with the task of correcting errant youth. Back in time, the qualifications set for persons to work at institutions such as Armadale included, "experience in teaching and youth leadership; a knowledge of dealing with the behaviour problems of underprivileged children and a sympathetic interest in their welfare". Wardens were required to take part in the supervision and leisure-time activities and provide conditions akin to a stable home. What we are hearing today suggests that these principles and practices are not being observed. The name of Armadale is mud.

Far-reaching measures for improvement are being demanded by observers outraged by conditions at Armadale and other juvenile centres; and this will cost vastly more money than the public purse can afford now or in the near future. So, where do we go from here? Some want heads to roll, personnel punished and the girls moved into bigger, better buildings and more congenial surroundings. Juveniles who are overcome with emotional, behavioural and learning problems need therapy and education, understanding and mentoring, not a regime resembling those of prisons and concentration camps.

Then, too, we must begin to hold parents accountable for the proper upbringing of their children. Delinquents must be seen not only as lawbreakers, but as youngsters with ineffective parents, mothers and fathers of offenders must be subjected to mandatory counselling and be made to share in and support the task of rehabilitation.

Ken Jones is a veteran journalist. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com