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The degrading and inhumane treatment in our prisons

Published:Tuesday | April 21, 2015 | 12:00 AMJaevion Nelson

Hundreds of Jamaicans, mostly males, are detained every year by the police and often subjected to cruel and degrading treatment while incarcerated in police lockups and in correctional and remand centres.

Prison conditions and the cruel and inhuman treatment of persons detained and/or convicted in Jamaica have been discussed countless times at a plethora of human rights-related fora locally and internationally by entities such as Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), Families Against State Terrorism and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

Recently, my colleague, Rodje Malcolm who has responsibility for advocacy at JFJ pointed out at the Pre-Session of the 22nd Universal Periodic Review of Jamaica that "in the first cycle, several states made recommendations surrounding detention conditions, prison overcrowding and incarceration of minors that Jamaica accepted. [However], in large part, most of these recommendations have not been meaningfully implemented.

'The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. The UPR is a significant innovation of the Human Rights Council, which is based on equal treatment for all countries. It provides an opportunity for all states to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights. The UPR also includes a sharing of best human rights practices around the globe. Currently, no other mechanism of this kind exists' (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). Jamaica will be reviewed on May 13, 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland between 9 a.m. and 12:30p.m. (GMT+2).

product of administrative failure

In his presentation to several diplomats, Malcolm argued that the overcrowding in facilities is a product of administrative failure on the part of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). DCS manages the island's correctional and remand centres, which house persons convicted of crimes and those awaiting trial who have not been released on bail.

In March, the Auditor General's Department, in its audit of the DCS, found that maximum-security prisons remain overcrowded because assessments of inmates for transfer to medium and low-security prisons were consistently not conducted. As a result, all new inmates go to one of the maximum-security prisons. They should then be assessed for transfer, depending on their profile. However, this does not always take place, resulting in overcrowding. Incidentally, medium and low-security prisons are under-populated, with these facilities housing inmates 43-51 per cent below maximum capacity. This has clearly led to an inefficient use of the already scarce resources.

It doesn't take much effort to address these problems and they do not all cost millions of dollars. As Jamaicans for Justice has recommended, the Government should:

1. Expedite the review of detention policies and practices in Jamaica, make the findings publicly accessible and facilitate public engagement on the policies prior to implementation

2. Ensure that all detention conditions conform to international standards in relation to, inter alia, overcrowding, access to hygienic facilities, and access to adequate medical and psychological care.

3. Pass legislation to more effectively regulate arrest and detention by police that explicitly and affirmatively expresses the rights of detainees, strengthens judicial oversight of arrest and detention, and provides specific remedies for breach of duty

4. Pass legislation to ensure that detainees cannot have their detention unreasonably extended for the purposes of facing an identification parade. Legislation should place strict limits on such extensions.

5. Centrally collect data on detainees at police stations in a consistent manner and adopt and maintain a central register of detainees so as to facilitate effective internal detainee management planning and identify potentially hazardous conditions

I know it is easy, especially for those have us who have been directly affected by the scourge of crime and violence in our country and those of us who have become terribly fatigued with same, to think criminals do not deserve better. Minister Bunting should be commended for raising such an unpopular issue in his budget debate presentation last year. I commend the government for the actions it has taken to correct these wrongs and encourage that much more be done to allow those who are incarcerated to enjoy their rights.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and