Sun | Dec 10, 2023

Prison conditions and inhumane treatment of prisoners

Published:Monday | February 6, 2023 | 12:15 AMOlufemi Sowande/Guest Columnist
St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre in Spanish Town.
St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre in Spanish Town.

Numerous reports and studies available on prisons and prisoners across developing countries highlight that inmates are routinely treated cruelly and serve time in deplorable living conditions. This is no different in the case of Jamaica, which has several punitive, harsh, and overcrowded prisons, which have repeatedly led to the mistreatment and neglect of the wholesome interests or rehabilitation of prisoners.

The current lack of interest in prisoner rights in Jamaica has been described as disgraceful and inhumane by various human-rights organisations, as issues such as sanitation and safety have manifested into numerous health and psychological effects on inmates.

But rightly so, isn’t it?

Many would agree that criminals do the crime, so they deserve to serve their time in the most uncomfortable and unfavourable situations. Many Jamaicans who have suffered at the hands of the criminal world agree that prison is a well-deserved punishment for one’s injustices and sins. Prisons are in existence to, among other things, rehabilitate persons who are incarcerated; however, in many cases, the incarceration period has not resulted in ‘lessons learned’ from one’s actions, but a gravitation to greater evil, or even the sending of a message to the system. In 2021, the number of persons admitted was 903, where 369 of them were reoffenders resulting in a recidivism rate of 41 per cent.

The crimes committed by these repeat offenders range from the illegal possession of firearms and ammunition to sexual offences and offences related to murder and manslaughter, among others. With a recidivism rate that exceeds global standards of 20 to 23 per cent, the institutional effectiveness for rehabilitation and the psychological care provided to inmates as a means of breaking the cycle of violence must be called into question.

The following is the breakdown of the number of previously convicted non-custodial and custodial persons by correctional facilities in 2021.

New admissions by correctional facility (2021): Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre (ACC) – 226; St Catherine ACC – 279; South Camp ACC – 29 (total: 534). Previously convicted (non-custodial): Tower Street ACC – 52; St Catherine ACC – 63; South Camp ACC – 1 (total: 116). Readmission: Tower Street ACC – 101; St Catherine ACC – 152; South Camp ACC – 0 total: 253). The combined total being 903.


In exploratory studies conducted with former prisoners, many have recounted the poor conditions – lack of good sanitation, medical attention, supportive care, sleep, conflicts, and nutritional imbalances – that, instead of contributing to their rehabilitation or allowing them time for reflection on their acts of injustice, have led to more medical and psychological challenges than good. This results in a greater chance of reoffending than prior to being incarcerated in the first instance.

The prison population in Jamaica was 3,565 at the end of 2021. Jamaica has eight adult correctional institutions and four juvenile facilities. There is a female prison, a male and female remand centre, and six male prisons for men. Despite the fact that there are six male prisons, the majority of male offenders are housed in two facilities: The Tower Street and St Catherine Adult Correctional Centres. Both of these facilities are currently operating above capacity. The Tower Street prison operates at 200 per cent of its 850-inmate capacity, while St Catherine operates at 107 per cent of its 850-inmate capacity as shown below.

Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre: Established capacity – 850; per cent of occupancy as of 2021 – 200 per cent (approx 1,700 inmates). St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre: Established capacity – 850; per cent of occupancy as of 2021 –107 per cent (approx 57 inmates)

These facilities are unfit for living by international standards and unreasonable for human operations. Numerous reports, articles, and interventions have highlighted the impact of overcrowding on the health and safety of prisoners.

In an access to information report in 2018, it was reported that 400 inmates had been injured, more than 100 had received emergency medical attention, and many did not survive. This resulted from violent clashes between inmates and stand-offs between inmates and correctional officers. In many cases, adequate medical attention did not materialise. This increased violence among inmates can be attributed to the inhumane conditions under which staff and prisoners co-exist.


Dacia Leslie argues that overcrowding poses a risk and limits interventions aimed at promoting positive behaviour. Inmates who are exposed to overcrowded prison conditions are more likely to suffer from psychosocial stress, aggressive behaviour, impulsive behaviours, drug use, etc, and as such are more likely to violate their parole and get re-arrested. Therefore, overcrowding is negatively impacting prisoners inside and outside of prison. It is no surprise that sleep deprivation causes stress, headaches, anxiety, and other medical problems.

This is also linked to the problem of poor bedding in our already-overcrowded prison system. Sleep deprivation was linked to depression and the use of addictive substances such as cigarettes and marijuana, according to a study conducted in Eastern Ethiopia. Therefore, poor sleep quality is correlated with improper bedding and overcrowding. Because these conditions are linked to mental illnesses and other medical conditions, they continue to be inhumane and have a negative impact on inmates even after they are released.


Overall, research conducted in North America and Europe has found that access to a variety of rehabilitation programmes, cordial interactions between inmates and custodial staff, less coercive and restrictive institutional rules, and the facilitation of inmate autonomy and control over their environment are important correlates of positive adjustment in prison. Criminal justice expert Patrice Morris suggests the dire need for the construction of modern maximum-security prison facilities to ease overcrowded conditions and provide inmates with a safe and humane place to serve their time. The rationale for this is that prison environments should aid, not hinder, coping. There is also a need for adequate rehabilitation programmes and constructive activities in Jamaican prisons. Studies have shown that inmates cope better in prisons that provide ample opportunities to participate in various types of rehabilitation programmes and activities.

This evidence highlights the need for urgent attention to be extended to correctional facilities in Jamaica. While inmates in our prisons are truly doing hard time and are being punished severely for their crimes by being removed from society and having their rights curtailed, there is a dire need for the construction of modern, secured prison facilities. The construction of these facilities will ease the overcrowded conditions, especially in the maximum-security prisons, and allow modern rehabilitation programmes, including training facilities, to be implemented so that on release prisoners can rejoin society rather than reoffend. There is also the urgent need for correctional facilities to implement programmes to allow the annual budgetary allocation to be meaningfully reduced.

The bottom line is that for us to be safe as we go about our daily routines, we need to change the way we view and treat citizens in correctional facilities under our care.

Olufemi Sowande is former chief executive officer of an inner-city organisation training young adults displaced by the formal system, including rehabilitated former prisoners. Send feedback to