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What we should do with that British prison offer

Published:Thursday | November 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Bernard Headley
A warder stands just inside the entrance of the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre.
Crime officers from across the island gather at the Police Officers’ Club in St Andrew for a meeting called by Commissioner of Police Dr Carl Williams to focus on the rising crime affecting the country.

In doing an article on the matter of crime in the country with the proviso that I could 'take it from any angle', I could choose to write on what I thought the root causes of our current violent 'wave' are.

The causes are still the same old documented ones: (a) our failure to create sufficient avenues of opportunity for our people, and (b) our inability to develop a culture of peace.

Instead we've fostered, more so in recent times, systems of structural and cultural violence, in which the violence of poverty, joblessness and neglect seamlessly coexist with the violence of everyone for his/her greedy self, of never allowing yourself to be dissed, and of every man from police and thieves to assassins and church pastors packing a gun.

These I could expand on (and have elsewhere) as explaining why the Jamaican 'village', after 53 years of Independence, has raised two successive generations of martial youths.

That is, iconic 'Johnny too bads' who could just as easily slit your throat (with ISIS-like precision), and make duppies of one another, as they could (and do) 'make' babies - with the same lack of regard or equal delight. This is not a police problem. It's a societal problem!


Relief and alleviation


But engaging in remedies for relief and alleviation we must; and this is what I've chosen to focus on here. Incarceration and certainly the hope for rehabilitation and redemption have been our - and the civilised world's - chosen ways for adapting to the malady of crime.

A society riddled and afflicted with crime and violence, as is ours, never would 'in its right mind', as my mother used to say, flatly turn down an offer for relief and remediation.

And that, it seems to many, is what the unthinking are encouraging the Portia Simpson Miller administration to do in response to British Prime Minister David Cameron's offer of £25 million to help build a mass prison to house a combination of his and our 'yardies'.

I could be counted among the unthinking, except that I see a different sort of problem - beyond Mr Cameron's effrontery - in the British offer.

There is for me a fundamental flaw in the underlying premise of the offer, and the seeming common ground at which both Jamaica's Minister of National Security Peter Bunting and Mr Cameron have arrived.

Yes, the two maximum-security prisons we have - one at Tower Street and the other in Spanish Town - are ghastly, inhumane national embarrassments (more so the former), which we should hastily put under wrecking balls.

But will the hoped-for relief and alleviation come from building a larger and more expensive version of the same? The weight of the evidence suggests not.

That which we expect from prisons ought logically to determine the kind of prison we build - or use Mr Cameron's money to help build. Reflexive talk of building a new facility, however 'modern', for mass incarceration would be going in the wrong direction, tantamount to travelling in reverse to a worldwide progressive trend of 'de-prisoning' - including in the United Kingdom

Besides, mass prisons are known breeding grounds for reproducing more crime, especially organised gang crimes. Just wait. Professor and Gleaner columnist Carolyn Cooper has whimsically but correctly warned that till deported yardies from Britain meet up in Mr Cameron's and Mr Bunting's prison with the yardies from yard should the 1,500 to 2,000-capacity prison be built.


Repurposing the offer


Undoubtedly, we do need prisons. But prisons ought to be, particularly in our violent crime setting, for meeting two separate objectives. The first is for immediate safety and protection; the other is to encourage and enable rehabilitation. Both aren't usually successfully accomplished under the same roof.

Every society has its share of the incorrigibly dangerous, from whom the rest of us in 'normal' society must be protected. My informed guess is, though, that generally defined sociopaths - habitual murderers, hit men, repeat rapists, serial abductors and chronic molesters - number, in any given year, no more than five to, at most, 10 per cent of our maximum-security prison population.

Several of them may, sadly, be hopelessly irredeemable (we need to do the empirical assessments). They and others to follow must be kept away, permanently, from people wanting to go about their law-abiding, everyday lives.

We should use a portion of Mr Cameron's pounds to build one small, maximum-secured facility exclusively for the 300 to 400 bona fide sociopaths we normally produce per generation. Providing we can get the courts to go along, the facility would house and feed them for the rest of their lives, which they will end naturally there on a prison bed, and then buried, if need be, in the prison-provided cemetery.

So as not to drive these 300 to 400 totally over the edge, making the job of managing them more difficult for warders, we could run in the place a couple of profitable prison industries - as currently being done, more or less humanely, for lifers in the Angola state prison, in Louisiana, USA.

But there is another type of institution we will have to build. It's for the other 90 to 95 per cent of those we normally commit to prison who are not proven sociopaths. They are not individuals defined by their crimes, as in 'hardened' or habitual.

Ruthlessly spat out from disadvantaged settings, they are typically jobless urban youths who unwittingly, and wittingly, got lured, swept up, tricked or threatened into gangs and gang crimes. Many are frightened first- or second-time offenders.

For the majority of these early offenders the journey into crime can be nixed by the kind of institutional arrangements into which we commit them.

Change and transformation are more likely if programmes for their rehabilitation were to be undertaken in small, dedicated settings that, among other things, simulate as well as replicate the civilising norms of structured community.

We should take, then, the more significant portion of the funds Mr Cameron is offering to build two additional separate modest-size minimum-security institutions for offenders whom our scientific assessments say are redeemable.

These institutions would be augmented (using what's left of the funds) across the island by a series of rehabilitative skills development and restoration centres, halfway houses and prisoner re-entry opportunity job sites.

- Bernard Headley is the author of several scholarly books and articles on crime, a retired professor of criminology, University of the West Indies, Mona, and distinguished Professor Emeritus of justice studies, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, USA; co-founder and board chair of the NGO National Organisation of Deported Migrants Feedback: and