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Confined to 'Hell': Jailed children suffer in MoBay

Published:Sunday | February 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM

EVERY FACE tells a story. And it is not difficult to read the lines of worry and apprehension as the children in cell block # 6 peer through the iron bars. It is obvious they have many questions to ask, but they choose only to stare - in silence.

The station log book - there is a separate one for juveniles - lists the names of the detained inmates and the offences for which they are charged: possession of firearm; shooting with intent; carnal abuse; murder; suspicion of aggravated assault; malicious destruction of property; unlawful wounding; and, breach of probation order.

Above the din at the Freeport Police Station lock-up in the tourism capital, Montego Bay, a siren goes off. "Prisoners are off to court," a police officer says.

Montego Bay, St James, is a city sagging under the weight of crime and violence. The jailhouse - the central lock-up for the city - is full and literally bursting at the seams. In the dank, dark recess of one of the buildings at the back of the compound are 21 juvenile 'offenders', including three 13-year-olds. Seven children are confined to a tiny, dirty cell.

There is one female who was held a week earlier on suspicion of murder. She is housed with three adult women in a cell.

The entire facility is dirty and the stench - a combination of disinfectant, body waste and food - makes the stomach churn. Despite this, a warder is having breakfast. She smiles and points to a table and chair in a corner of the lock-up.

Walls which were earlier painted in grey and yellow, are now caked with a thick coat of dirt. The floor is no cleaner, and bits of cardboard and newspaper are placed here and there to soak up spilt water.

A female warder searches for a large key. She finds it, and opens the door to the dimly lit corridor. Rows of cells are on each side. Female inmates are in cells to the left and men to the right.

It is grim in here. One cell is opened. We peer inside. Five young boys jump to the floor. They were obviously trying to peer through a high window at the back of the cell. Articles of clothing are strewn all over, mixing in with the mess of discarded food particles.

Beyond the area where the children are housed, adult males look on, their gaze penetrating.

confinement nightmare

The juveniles with whom we speak tell of the nightmare of confinement. "We can only pee in the toilet in the cell; if you want to do anything else, you have to wait to go down to the big one. We get to go twice, morning and evening," says 'JJ' who is 14.

He also shares that he has been sleeping on the floor for over two weeks as his older cellmates demand the concrete bunks.

"Sometimes, when the boys in the cells give trouble, the warder come and beat us with the baton; him beat everybody," another young detainee says.

"Dem physically abuse you and terrorise we when dem ready," says another 14-year-old who cannot remember the last time he was in school. He says, "Me hard fe pick up, so me mother was going to send me to a different school, but we come in here now... ." He is sad and the tears spill over.

"Having the children in such an environment is a clear violation of their rights to certain basic things," Courtney Berry, investigating officer at the Office of the Children's Advocate (OCA), told The Sunday Gleaner in an interview.

"It is our duty at the OCA to make representation on behalf of the children to the Department of Correctional Services, the Ministry of Health, the Child Development Agency and the Ministry of National Security.

When contacted for a comment on the state of the island's lock-ups and the care of children within those facilities, permanent secretary within the Ministry of National Security, Major Richard Reese, referred us to the Child Development Agency.

But yesterday, Corporal Vacianna of the Freeport police could not describe the condition or configuration of the cell block holding the children. Despite the OCA's record showing that 21 underage inmates are at the facility, the corporal said currently there are only 14 children on the station's books.