Sun | Jun 26, 2022

Letter of the Day | Sent to prison as punishment, and not for punishment

Published:Thursday | May 26, 2022 | 12:08 AM


My recent conversation with an individual who spent 10 years in prison has reinforced the view that judges should acquaint themselves with prison conditions as a rule. Judges must be familiar with the law, and the application of relevant law to a set of facts, to determine guilt or innocence. To better equip them in applying the correct punishment, they should be educated by the correctional services department on the daily lives of prisoners. Doctors acquaint themselves with the reaction of different doses of medication to guide their prescription-writing. At times, patients have adverse reactions to a dosage which is pretty safe and beneficial to another patient. It is, therefore, not rocket science to understand that judges may be getting diminishing returns from imposing a sentence which they misguidedly consider appropriate.

We all ought to have an interest in the issue of sentencing. This is so because, except for a minority of prisoners, they all have to rejoin the rest of us in the free world at the end of their respective sentences. They will all, therefore, return to be a part of the fabric of society, whether we want to accept this as true or not. We cannot afford for the perpetrator of a horrifying crime to come out at the end of his sentence to join us as a horrific person. We all have a vested interest in the appropriateness of sentences. I could not send my child, who has done wrong, next door to be ‘sentenced’, with no idea of the conditions under which he or she will be punished. The system correctly makes provisions for a social enquiry into the convicted person to be done, to inform the judge as to his or her background. I, without hesitation, accept that this report helps. However, of equal importance is the ‘new home’ the convicted person is being sent to by the judge, for how long, and under what conditions. Rehabilitation is a non-negotiable aim of imprisonment. The huge question here is, with the old, run-down prisons as they are in Jamaica, is the justice system achieving this ideal?


And let’s not forget persons on remand. Those awaiting trial – who are presumed innocent – and the conditions in which they are kept. Agana Barrett was detained on his way to work as a tiler. He was among about 20 other detainees taken into custody. In a crowded cell, this citizen died – along with two other detainees – from a lack of oxygen, leaving him disoriented and dehydrated. He was forced to drink his own urine before he took his last breath! Barrett was not charged for any offence, neither was any report received about him being involved in any crime. Every reader of this piece can find themselves detained. As a driver, you can be detained and criminally charged, following a fatal accident, for causing death by dangerous driving.

Let the conditions in our prisons and lock-ups be exposed, so that judges may make more informed decisions about whether to imprison or not. If they decide to imprison, then the question is, how long should they send them away, based on the horrible conditions in our century-old penal institutions? The Ministry of Justice last year sought to cut back on the alarming 40 per cent rate of recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend) among the prison population. Prisons are simply not working. Judges must never lose sight of the fact that rehabilitation is the main aim of sentencing. How many of our judges have ever been given a tour of our prisons?

The convicted person goes to prison as punishment, and not for punishment.

Bert Samuels