Thu | Dec 8, 2016

EDITORIAL - Outsource prisons, lock-ups

Published:Monday | September 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM

A Cabinet subcommittee, established in the aftermath of Mario Deane's killing, has, we are told, until the end of this month to submit recommendations on how to reduce overcrowding in Jamaica's police lock-ups.

Their suggestions are unlikely to include construction of new, modern facilities in which to house police detainees or long-term prisoners. Mostly, they will call for administrative measures, such as the one recently announced by the government of not arresting, but proceeding by summons, persons charged for minor offences, such as the possession of small quantities of marijuana - the crime for which Mr Deane found himself in a police cell where he was beaten to death. They will also probably urge the government to move speedily with its promised reform to the law, to decrimalise ganja use and, therefore, possession of limited quantities of the drug for personal use as well as propose a new, more liberal regime for bail, including encouraging the police to allow accused persons to go on their own recognisance, rather than keeping them in cells.

Such proposals will not be without utility. For, as Peter Bunting, the security minister and the committee's chair said, the use of similar arrangements, has, in recent years, significantly reduced the level of overcrowding in lock-ups. But given the scale of the problem, or rather crisis, what we will get is a band-aid, rather than a real fix. And we fear that another Mario Deane will soon be upon us.

The fact is that most of Jamaica's police stations, and the lock-ups therein, were built in another era of different circumstances. The level of crime was vastly lower, as were the number of arrests, and the causes for which people were detained were less likely to have been violent. Indeed, while up-to-date figures are not readily available, it is estimated that until recently, up to 6,000 persons could be in lock-ups at any time, accused of crimes ranging from murder to petty theft and possession of a ganja cigarette. The capacity of existing police cells is a fraction of this number. Add to this the fact that given the long economic malaise, already inadequate public and social infrastructure, including police stations, have fallen into disrepair. It is in such circumstance that, nearly two decades ago, Agana Barrett, Vassel Brown and Ian Forbes suffocated in an overcrowded cell at the Constant Spring police station.

Problem bigger than just lock-ups

But the crisis is not only of police lock-ups. It is replicated in our prisons and detention centres. For instance, the major maximum-security gaols, Tower Street in Kingston and St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre, are 18th-century facilities, which are incapable of serious upgrading. They are overcrowded and primitive, each with a population nearly double its capacity. Overall, the prison population is around 30 per cent above capacity. Indeed, no detention facility has been constructed since the Horizon Adult Remand Centre for people on remand was reconfigured in the early 2000s.

The upshot: we are faced with a full-blown crisis that demands urgent attention.

We appreciate that fiscal limitations precludes the capital outlay by the government at this time. In this regard, the government should be considering a public/private-sector partnership, that is, outsourcing the construction and management of new facilities to private firms. We require particulars better than Mr Bunting's flimsy assertions that such deals would harm the government's fiscal policy and its programme with the International Monetary Fund.