No lifting of prison visit ban soon
There are no plans to lift a ban on visitation to the island’s prisons any time soon, as COVID-19 outbreaks within the correctional system have made decisions of the sort extremely risky.
At the same time, the Government continues to juggle a proposed roll-out of an electronic monitoring system more than a decade after the introduction of electronic bracelets for certain convicts as a pilot project. But the current COVID-19 crisis and prison overcrowding have factored minimally in the deliberation of its usage, authorities say.
These decisions may come as a blow to relatives of inmates who, since last March, have not engaged in face-to-face communication with their loved ones or been able to provide them with home-cooked meals or mementos.
“COVID-19 doesn’t magically appear in our facilities; it has to be brought in by a human vector. We can’t limit staff entering because the facilities need to be run in a particular manner. The only way we can limit interactions and the virus is to do this (ban),” argued Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of National Security Matthew Samuda, regarding the decision to halt visitation to prisons across the island until the coronavirus threat has been minimised.
Samuda, who is also charged with spearheading policy issues within the island’s correctional facilities, was speaking at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum on Tuesday, where he said the Government was looking to introduce “digital communication” over the long term.
“We have considered a number of options and are in consultation with the Ministry of Health. We are considering whether or not we can use glass sheets in booths, what the sterilisation requirement would be for those booths, and whether or not outside of the facilities we have adequate space to facilitate social distancing,” he said, just three weeks shy of the anniversary of the prison ban on March 16, last year.
In the interim, Samuda said the Government has been looking at resuming the delivery of care packages to inmates from relatives, but that, too, comes with security and logistical challenges.
“We have put in place the capacity for digital communication but there is an inherent distrust within facilities and digital communication that I believe will take significant time for people to get comfortable with,” continued Samuda, not saying to what extent digital communication is currently being used by prisoners.
Meanwhile, from as far back as 2005, the Government has been tinkering with the prospect of electronic monitoring for less violent inmates to reduce prison overcrowding.
The programme was officially launched in July 2011 when it was dubbed a ‘game changer’ to the criminal rehabilitation process in Jamaica; and then relaunched in 2016 when a dozen inmates were involved in a pilot project.
In 2016, then Minister of National Security Robert Montague told reporters that the system would allow for “overburdened taxpayers to be spared additional taxes. The offenders will remain in the family structure while serving the time and repaying their debt to society, which reduces the prison population.”
However, last week Samuda told The Sunday Gleaner that the initiative was still being analysed and will not be ready any time soon.
“What we are looking at now is the policy underpinning of electronic monitoring. When you look at the varying projects that have been done, we know that from a technological standpoint it can stand up to scrutiny,” he noted. “What we are working on now is how we would use that technology to improve scrutiny and general safety. The policy thinking is not to facilitate early release. The question is where do you use it and where does it best achieve your security outcomes.”
Under the programme, inmates would be required to wear a personal identification and tracking device that is fitted to their ankle which can detect possible tampering. In 2011, it would have cost US$16.50 (J$1,400) per day to monitor each inmate.