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LETTER OF THE DAY - Prison divestment will escalate incarceration

Published:Wednesday | September 10, 2014 | 12:00 AM

THE EDITOR, Sir:

I support The Gleaner's concern about the levels of crime in Jamaica and the undercapacity of the island's jails and prisons to house those remanded and convicted.

But the newspaper's proposed solution is dangerous. In your editorial on September 8, 2014 headlined 'Outsource prisons, lock-ups', you wrote the following: "The Government should be considering a public-private-sector partnership, that is, outsourcing the construction and management of new facilities to private firms."

The Gleaner proposes that Jamaica go the route of certain states and municipalities in the United States with the privatisation of the correctional system. This created what some derisively call the prison industrial complex.

Theoretically, jails and prisons are to lead the reform of the incarcerated. It is, of course, known that prison systems, including Jamaica's, fail in this regard. But the assumption holds in many instances, even in the midst of failure.

Privatisation changes the rubric entirely - these facilities are run for profit, not to reform or 'correct' the behaviour of those jailed and imprisoned. Because the motive is profit rather than correction or reform, there is now the grotesque incentive to have as many persons in jails and prisons as possible.

Laws are passed to make minor misdemeanours punishable with jail time; judges are forced to pass mandatory minimum sentences; minors are tried as adults; and the three-strike rule makes petty offenders long-term prison inmates.

The aim is to increase jail and prison head count so as to increase revenue and profit, because the companies that own and run jails and prisons are paid per head. There are communities where private prisons are the major employer and industry.

In the US, blacks, Latinos and the poor are specially affected. Michelle Alexander's brilliant The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness tells the story well.

A primary function of any government is law and order. It is not only risky, but always dangerous to place such functions in the hands of corporations whose aim is to make profit.

ERON HENRY

Alexandria, Virginia