Wed | Aug 10, 2022

Jaevion Nelson | Protect rights and well-being of prisoners

Published:Friday | April 22, 2022 | 12:05 AM
The Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in downtown Kingston.
The Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in downtown Kingston.

A few weeks ago, around the time of the tabling of the 2022-2023 Budget, there was a bit of discussion about the cost of food for inmates in the island’s prisons. The discussion which caused some uneasiness was prodded by a news report in the Jamaica Observer which stated that the Government budgeted $581,431,000 to feed the inmates.

Seemingly, some people believed the money was too much and that inmates should be put to work to feed themselves (and be less of a burden to taxpayers). Now, I know many of us are often not particularly kind in our sentiments about inmates. Much of this is because of our views about what should be done to people who are convicted of (certain) crimes. But do we not understand and appreciate that all of us have rights – even those who have been convicted of a crime?

Let’s think about the $581,431,000 that was budgeted. Isn’t that less than a percentage of the $912-billion budgeted expenditure for the current fiscal year? If my math is correct, it’s a measly 0.06 per cent of the total Budget, or 0.63 per cent of the $92 billion (in recurrent expenses) budgeted for the security ministry. Based on data obtained online, there are 11 prisons in the country, with four of them being juvenile facilities. The population of inmates is around 3,700 people (which include pretrial detainees).

Based on the numbers, if my math is correct, the Government is spending $13,000 per person per month. That’s less than $500 per day per person for two to three meals daily. What’s expensive about that?

HAS A DUTY

The Government has a duty – yes, an obligation – to feed the inmates and feed them properly, actually, because they have rights like all of us. According to the General Assembly Resolution 45/111, Basic Principles for the Rights of Prisoners, which was adopted in 1990: “Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, where the State concerned is a party, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.”

Based on information obtained, inmates, at one prison, are served three meals – breakfast, dinner and supper. Porridge, tea, bread, rice, chicken, chicken back, mackerel, turkey neck, chicken foot, and chicken neck are some of the things served. I understand steamed vegetables are given to those that are on a special diet. Seemingly, vegetables are not always served with every meal, but sometimes they get cabbage and bread with tea for breakfast. If inmates get hungry in-between meals, they can buy snacks at the tuck shop off their ticket (which states how much money they have).

A Survey of Individuals Deprived of Liberty, published by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in October 2020, found that inmates are generally dissatisfied with the food served in prisons. According to 78.9 per cent of the 724 inmates surveyed in the seven adult prisons, between August and September 2018, the quality of the food is poor or very poor. The researchers noted that “an overwhelming number of the inmates interviewed at Tower Street (91.7 per cent) reported that the food was poor or very poor. Inmates at Horizon (76.4 per cent), Fort Augusta (62.3 per cent), and Tamarind Farm (61.9 per cent) also reported that the food quality was poor or very poor”. Perhaps not surprisingly, 69.8 per cent of them reported that they receive food from family members.

PRISON CONDITIONS

Beyond the issue of what is served, we need a national conversation about prison conditions. The IDB found that 35.5 per cent of “inmates were housed in locations with more people than they were designed to accommodate”. In fact, Tower Street had the highest report of overcrowding at 63.5 per cent. Additionally, at the time of the survey, “41.9 per cent said that someone in their accommodations did not have a bed” and 57.6 per cent of them said the toilets were dirty or somewhat dirty.

The results are evidence of the critical need for reform, including greater investment to take better care of people serving time in adult and juvenile facilities. We cannot continue to pretend this is not a critical issue. People who are incarcerated have rights, rights that ought to be respected, protected and promoted. I know there have been efforts to address some of the issues, like the public-private partnership that was launched by the previous state minister about two years ago to allow them to rear chicken. This is commendable, but we need more of these kinds of investments; and we desperately need a new prison.

Let us not, as a people, wait until someone close to us is incarcerated to recognise that more needs to be done.

Jaevion Nelson is a human-rights, economic and social justice and inclusive development advocate. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @jaevionn.