Mon | Sep 27, 2021

Editorial | Make modern prison more than talk

Published:Friday | February 26, 2021 | 12:07 AM

No one wants, or expects, any prison built in Jamaica to be a country club. But neither are we looking for replications of Devil’s Island or Alcatraz.

Which is why we look forward to further discussions by Horace Chang, the national security minister, on the philosophy that is informing the Government’s approach to a new maximum-security correctional facility; when, realistically, he expects to get it done; and how much of the prison’s design may be influenced by the ideas such as those of the former police chief, Owen Ellington. It would also be useful if Mr Ellington elaborated on his views on the matter.

Building modern, state-of-the-art prisons that find the right balance between punishing and rehabilitating offenders is not cheap. For example, a federal facility in Tucson, Arizona, completed in 2005 and capable of housing between 1,000 and 1,100 medium- to high-security prisoners, was built at a cost of US$100 million, or around J$15 billion in today’s money. It would be more expensive to build the same prison now.


Or, put another way, if prisons were cheap, Jamaica would have had a new one perhaps a quarter of a century ago. That is how long this matter has been on the national agenda, though always colliding with, as governments have seen it, greater and more immediate priorities.

Indeed, the closest Jamaica has come to having a new prison since the early 1990s – when consideration was given to the now heavily criticised scheme of private-sector firms financing correctional facilities and operating them under contracts with governments – was six years ago when the British government offered Jamaica £25 million towards building one. There was, however, a proviso. Britain wanted an arrangement under which some Jamaicans serving sentences in UK prisons would, with a certain portion of their time left, be sent home to complete their terms. Most such prisoners are deported at the end of their sentences.

The idea was attractive on this front: Jamaica would be assured of a substantial portion of the capital needed to build a prison to replace the decrepit, overcrowded 18th-century facilities at Tower Street in Kingston and at Spanish Town, St Catherine. These are too far gone to entertain modernisation and are affronts to human rights and human dignity. The downside risk of Britain infringing the rights of Jamaican Britons by deporting them to this country under the cover of the scheme could have been guarded against in the terms of the agreement and with robust policing of its protocols on the Jamaican side.

However, with an election in the offing, the issue was good populist grist for Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who was then in Opposition, especially during the visit of Britain’s then prime minister. The matter was cast as Britain offering Jamaica a prison rather than schools. The argument gained traction.


We appreciate the political difficulty of the administration walking back this position. So Dr Chang’s announcement that the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) has been mandated to work out how to finance a new prison is welcome. It will cost, he said, at least J$10 billion – US$67 million – which, if it comes in at that, would be a bargain.

“It will be done with local money,” Dr Chang said. “They (DBJ) have been delegated to look at the site and get the design, finance, and structural things done.” Most of this is relatively easy. The difficult bit will be finding the money unless the Government wants to reprise a build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) arrangement with a private consortium. For as Finance Minister Nigel Clarke will probably argue to his Cabinet colleagues, there will be little fiscal room over the medium term to support the financing of a prison from the Government’s coffers.

Of course, Mr Ellington has said that the prison need not be as expensive as forecast and suggested that the need for brick-and-mortar perimeter walls could be limited in favour of barbed-wire fencing. And the idea, after all, is not to have “a country club. It is a place for confined people who have forfeited their freedom because they have broken the law”, Mr Ellington said. Yes, but most prisoners, sooner or later, return to the society into which they are expected to reintegrate. So, prison is also about preparing the incarcerated for this eventuality, not their hardening.

Another point: inlets or moats with crocodiles sound decidedly medieval, and the site, perhaps, for remakes of Papillon or Escape from Alcatraz.