Is this new prison another empty promise?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

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Given the proclivity of Jamaican politicians to make grand announcements, we will hold the applause until we actually see the start of construction on this new prison that National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang says will be built in Trelawny.

According to Dr Chang, construction on the new prison — in “a section of Long Pond which is remote” — is scheduled to commence in the next financial year, and the facility will be equipped with “electronic hardening”, meaning that advanced technology will be used to cut off electronic communication with people on the outside.

That feature, he explained, will address concerns about the ability of prisoners to run their criminal empires from inside.

Our scepticism about this project has its foundation in the fact that since 2000 successive ministers of national security have been announcing the construction of a state-of-the-art prison.

In the 2000 sectoral debate in Parliament, then National Security Minister K D Knight announced that the new prison would be the first to be built in more than 100 years. At the time, he said that the new facility would be built on the site of the present Tamarind Farm correctional facility, comprising 48 hectares of land, and would accommodate up to 2,000 prisoners.

Five years later, Mr Knight's successor, Dr Peter Phillips, announced that the tender process to select the contractor to build the modern maximum security prison had been completed and should be taken to Cabinet shortly.

“I expect in the very near future we will be able to start the task of constructing a new modern correctional facility,” Dr Phillips said in his address at a Ministry of National Security 'appreciation function' at the Jamaica Conference Centre in recognition of the contribution of 1,100 correctional officers during the passage of Hurricane Ivan on September 10 - 12, 2004.

At the time, this newspaper had reported that work on the US$71.2-million prison was slated to begin in Spanish Town from 2001, but stalled following strong objection from the St Catherine Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber had argued that St Catherine already had four such institutions — the St Catherine District Prison, Tamarind Farm, Tredegar Park Approved School in Spanish Town, and Fort Augusta Women's Prison in Port Henderson.

In 2006, then Government Senator Kern Spencer, in his role as parliamentary secretary in the national security ministry, announced in the State of the Nation debate in the Upper House, that the property on which the state-of-the-art prison was to be constructed had been surveyed “and the sale agreement is in hand”.

However, at the time the Government declined to say where the prison was to be built. To this day, the country is still awaiting construction of that prison.

This is a common practice among many Jamaican politicians — making announcements rather than getting the work done — particularly in the run-up to parliamentary and parish council elections.

Dr Chang, we fear, may find himself at the centre of public doubt about this prison, especially because he was unable to state its capacity, even after he so boldly proclaimed that construction is scheduled to begin in the next financial year.

The general state of the island's prisons dictates the need for modern penal institutions where meaningful rehabilitation can replace punishment which, in most instances, is harsh and cruel.

Let us see if this Trelawny project will, like the others, be just another announcement.

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