Prison reform: the solution to institutionalised neglectWednesday, July 21, 2021
Dudley McLean II
IT was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Another way of expressing this is, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
We often think of the elderly, special needs people, and children as vulnerable members of society. However, incarcerated people represent the most vulnerable demographic and are subjected to low-quality health care and abuse from those in charge of their well-being, who exhibit attitudes of indifference rooted in an institutionalised culture of neglect, resulting in oppressive actions that dehumanise their fellow Jamaicans.
The Jamaica Observer editorial of June 29, 2020 , in addressing this neglect, identified two areas that we should urgently change in our attitudes towards our citizens.
The first speaks to people who are in prisons, and rightly so. The Observer identifies this as “a kind of 'institutionalised' culture of neglect or 'care fatigue', in the context of the wider disgraceful conditions within the prisons, [that] caused people with knowledge to wash their hands like Pontius Pilate”.
The second point, the Observer rightfully argues, is located in the nexus between the Jamaican people, who have “forthrightly rejected talk of upgrading and modernising prisons”, and psychiatric consultant Dr Geoffrey Walcott's assertion: “The punitive consequences based on the societal contract is that persons [in prison] are stripped of their right to freedom. But they are not stripped of the right to [protection] from cruel and unusual punishment…”
Ingrained in the Jamaican psyche is a subliminal desire for maintenance of punitive consequences or the plantation system, albeit now led by people of African descent.
Prison transformation has been a contentious issue between the British who, historically, desired structural change and Jamaican people, who have consistently thrown their weight behind the continuation of the plantation system.
The rejection of former British Prime Minister David Cameron's Administration's financial assistance to build a new penal facility and embrace prison reform in 2015 is not new. Just over 183 years ago, in 1838, an attempt to force Jamaica and other islands to reform their prisons resulted in a constitutional crisis that threatened the stability of both the British and Jamaican governments.
Twenty-seven years later, George William Gordon became a victim of the plantation system as he was declared an enemy of the State for seeking justice for those who suffered in the prisons. Gordon himself had written previously to Secretary Cardwell to complain about the perilous state of the poor who were being overtaxed and maltreated by the corrupt members of the assembly and the judiciary (Gordon to Cardwell, March 24, 1865, in Erickson, 1959). Gordon wrote directly to the Jamaican attorney general complaining of conditions in the Morant Bay prison and the death of a pauper who was confined to a latrine. All Gordon's claims were proven, but Governor Eyre had him forcibly removed from his position of vestryman and justice of the peace.
My cousin, Dr Carolyn Gomes, who once served as executive director for a local human rights group, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), is reported to have said that the conditions under which Jamaica's prisoners live are deplorable.
According to Dr Gomes, “Cells which were built for just one person now hold several inmates.” She further noted that “the close proximity and long periods of lockdown in a small space is a recipe for a myriad of problems, including violence and forced sexual contact with the possibility of transmitting HIV.” (Panos Institute Caribbean, December 2007)
We cannot fail to recognise that we do have an affinity for barbaric mistreatment of prisoners, as symbolised by the ongoing, unresolved Mario Deane case, which involves a young man who was beaten on August 3, 2014, while in custody at the Barnett Street Police Station in Montego Bay. All this happened because “he had been arrested for possession of a ganja spliff. Deane died three days later at the Cornwall Regional Hospital “. ( The Gleaner, Sept 19, 2020)
During the early stages of novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020, news broke about the death of a prisoner, Noel Chambers, who, like the pauper of Gordon's time, has reawakened our zeal for justice.
In 'We failed Noel Chambers' ( The Gleaner, June 6, 2020), I highlighted, among other things, three groups who were derelict in their duties:
● the commissioner and the Department of Correctional Services – both have the responsibility to care for those committed to their charge;
● the churches and the chaplaincy ministry in the exercise of our Lord's teaching on the judgement of the nations: “I was ... sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25:43);
●the custos and justices of the peace (JPs).
The Justices of the Peace Act, 2018, in section 7 (2), states: “A justice shall... whenever possible and subject to the availability of the justice, perform such other community-based activities as the custos may require (such as visits to prisons, children's homes, and homes for the aged).”
Through the Act, the State ensures that the human rights of our vulnerables – inmates in prisons, children in orphanages, and the elderly in homes for the aged – are not neglected. Yuh cyaan carry two face undah one hat (practise what you preach).
A post-COVID-19 Jamaica requires the creation of a caring society that demands of us an intentional act of change in our thinking and behaviour. We have already put in place the mechanisms to protect our people. This requires that those who are assigned oversight for the care of our vulnerables ought to fulfil their responsibilities.
We have to live the love – hospitality, justice, and reconciliation – to be free from care fatigue.
Dudley Chinweuba McLean II is executive director of Associación de Debate Bilingüe Xaymaca (Adebatex), promoting debating in Spanish in high schools. He is a graduate of Codrington College, UWI, (Cave Hill). Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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