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EDITORIAL - Decency carries no price tag

Published:Monday | February 22, 2010 | 12:00 AM

No one will be too surprised by Mr Manfred Nowak's characterisation of conditions at Jamaica's prisons and detention centres as appalling and reflecting a lack of respect for the dignity of people who come in conflict with the law.

For the fact is, the observations by Mr Nowak - the United Nations special rapporteur - about inhumane treatment of those in state facilities are not new. And neither have they been made, or are being made, only by outsiders like Mr Nowak, or his predecessors, on visits to Jamaica.

Indeed, in his unreleased report into last May's fire that killed seven inmates at Armadale, the detention facility for girls, retired judge Paul Harrison came to much the same conclusions - as have previous enquiries into riots at the St Catherine and Tower Street adult correctional prisons. All have highlighted overcrowding, the generally unhealthy conditions at the institutions, and a pervasive culture of violence - physical and psychological - in Jamaica's prisons and detention centres.

As Justice Harrison observed about the girls at Armadale: "There is a level below which no human being should be persistently forced and expected to exist. The girls in the office dormitory on May 22, 2009, had been degraded to that level."

Part of our problem, of course, is economic, in that Jamaica lacks the financial resources to throw at old, dilapidated prisons and police lock-ups. These were designed to accommodate far fewer people than now inhabit them and were mostly built at a time when notions of human rights were less well developed than they are now, especially when applied to the majority of people in countries such as ours.

But there is perhaps a deeper, more fundamental cause for our failure to improve, if not fix, the problems in Jamaica's correctional and remand facilities: our inability to resolve the tensions between subscription to the ideals of human rights and justice and the impulse to punish in an environment of high levels of crime, including homicides. Government policymakers, displaying the populist fear of offending majority sentiment, waffle on issues, while institutional managers fail to abide by principle, morality and, more basically, the rules.

Crisis of management

In the circumstances of Armadale and the situation that gave rise to the recent unrest at the Horizon Remand Centre - and the security responses to it - we could not be criticised for concluding that Jamaica's correctional system faces a crisis of management. Overseeing reform, we feel, is beyond the capacity of those now in charge. They are too encrusted and calcified by the detritus of too many horrors - too many Armadales, too many Horizons, too many St Catherine Adult Correctional Centres.

Surely, money is required for a turnaround. A new, modern prison is necessary. But the more immediate and overriding requirement is leadership that carries with it the philosophy that the preservation of human dignity and a respect for human rights are vital. It costs nothing, in fiscal terms, not to beat people and to preserve their basic rights under the law. But it demands great discipline and commitment to do what is right, which can be very difficult.

The bottom line: decency carries no price tag, but has the potential for big returns.

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