Urgent need to fix our prison system

Friday, January 11, 2013

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A decision earlier this week by the European Court of Human Rights to fine the Italian Government for maintaining overcrowded prisons in violation of the basic human rights of inmates offers food for thought in our jurisdiction.

We learnt through the Associated Press (AP) that the court ruled on a case brought in 2009 by seven inmates in two separate prisons who complained that they each were forced to share a nine square-metre (10.8-square yard) cell with two other people. That amounted to each inmate having three square metres (3.6 square yards) of personal space. The inmates also complained that they didn't have regular hot water or lighting.

According to the AP report, the court, based in Strasbourg, found that the conditions did indeed amount to a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights' prohibition against torture and human or degrading treatment.

The court also said that while there was no indication that the Italian authorities intended to humiliate the prisoners, the inmates' conditions subjected them to excessive hardships.

As a result, the court imposed a fine of ¤100,000 (US$131,000) on the Italian Government, and ordered it to make changes within a year.

The court ruling, we are told, came three years after the Italian Government acknowledged the problem, but failed to pass legislation to correct it.

The development, we believe, holds significant value for Jamaica, given the state of our prison system, which was highlighted two weeks ago in the Sunday Observer.

Overcrowding has been one of the most pressing issues in our prisons for as long as we can remember. The Sunday Observer report pointed out that both the Tower Street and St Catherine adult correctional centres have a capacity to each accommodate 850 inmates, yet Tower Street now houses 1,656, while the number at St Catherine is 1,201.

Add to that major structural defects at both prisons that pose safety and security risks; poor infrastructure that limit the rehabilitative thrust of the Department of Correctional Services and one gets an idea of the gravity of the situation.

The correctional authorities have also told the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament that they need additional staff if they are to be more efficient and effective, as the prison population, especially among juveniles, is growing.

The correctional department, in that report to the PAAC, made a few recommendations which, we believe, should be given serious consideration. Among them were the construction of a new adult prison and modernisation of existing juvenile and adult facilities; increased and improved use of the Caribbean Search Centre personnel and development of the department's intelligence capacity; a new staff structure to improve the department's capacity to carry out its mandate; and adequate budgetary allocations to address the training of staff, given the implications of the modernisation process.

The needs are not cheap, we acknowledge, and when placed in the context of the $2.25 billion spent by the correctional department in the first six months of 2012/2013, as well as the fact that the department will end the financial year in March $154 million over the budget allocated by a financially strapped Government, we get a picture of the difficulty.

The fact, though, is that any good prison system should be designed to foster rehabilitation, rather than having an emphasis on incarceration. Unfortunately that doesn't hold true, in large measure, here. It's something we need to fix.




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