Tue | Sep 27, 2022

Avoid Armadale repeat - fix the system

Published:Monday | March 1, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The media have released the much anticipated findings of Justice Paul Harrison, the sole commissioner into the direct causes and culpabilities of the deadly fire of May 22, 2009, that took the lives of seven wards of the state, injured eleven other girls and destroyed the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre.

It was reported that Justice Harrison was scathing in his criticism of Commissioner June Spence-Jarrett, who, as deputy commissioner in March 2008, decided to 'house' (cram is more appropriate) 23 girls on seven bunk beds with 14 mattresses in a designated 20x12-foot dormitory that (legally) should only accommodate five girls. Justice Harrison also dispersed blame for the horrible, sad and avoidable tragedy among several people.

Another important finding was Justice Harrison's conclusion that it was a teargas canister thrown into the midst of the rebellious girls within the locked dorm by an angry, chastising, retaliatory, irrational and impulsive Police Constable Lawrence Burrell that ignited a mattress (probably primed by an inflammatory chemical) and started the deadly fire.

I blame a system that is punitive, antiquated, opaque and lacking in order, discipline, oversight and funding. In spite of that, I am not about to excuse any individual for this catastrophe. This is especially so because I can never forget the response that I was given some years ago while researching the sometimes inhumane conditions under which our prisoners are housed. A female civil servant in the Ministry of Justice opined that people should not do things that would get them locked up. In other words, those convicted and given custodial sentences should take what they get - unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, overcrowding, perhaps abuse, rape and even death.

Disrespectful and rebellious

On the other hand, I know of many people working within the system (Children's Homes, Places of Safety and even Juvenile Correctional Centres) that are utterly frustrated by their inability to effect needed and meaningful change. Some are so passionate that they vociferously express their disgust to their superiors and are branded as rude, disrespectful and rebellious. Sometimes, people are warned not to publicise the deficiencies - no matter how potentially dangerous they may be.

These concerned individuals either suffer in silence, leave or capitulate, while consoling themselves with the knowledge that they can't change the system. I believe that a similar mentality exists within the upper administrative echelons of our domiciliary and correctional institutions. Responsible politicians always seem shocked and consternated when something horrible is exposed to the public or when people in the care of the state are killed. This never fails to amuse me because, more than anyone else, they know how terribly underfunded, understaffed, under-maintained and under-regulated our institutions are.

Regarding state-run institutions like Armadale; the children of the wealthy, rich or even financially secure families never end up there because they are not exposed to the environmental and psychological factors that engender criminality; they can pay their fines or pay for transgressions and avoid the need for court. The children of the poor and downtrodden get a triple-whammy - from their family, from society and then from institutions that are supposed to rehabilitate them.

The system must be fixed so that state wards will be safe, secure and rehabilitated when necessary. There must be oversight so that no single administrator decides the fate of the children. There must be a system that allows the observations (and perhaps recommendations) of each and every staff member to be discussed by a civilian committee. Everything that was amiss at Armadale was known before hand. Those deaths were avoidable.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Feedback may be sent to garthrattray@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com