An 18-month delay in the removal of the Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre to make way for the Fort Augusta Container Terminal has put in doubt Jamaica's ability to be ready for the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2014.
The issue was raised at Wednesday's meeting of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) at Gordon House, which looked at developments in the Ministry of National Security.
Permanent secretary in the ministry, Annmarie Barnes, confirmed that the Port Authority had informed the ministry of the need for the removal of the all-female prison. However, she said that the notice was adjusted and the ministry given at least 18 more months.
Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services (DSC) Lt Colonel Sean Prendergast told the committee that the DSC had done minimal repairs to the South Camp Adult Correctional Centre in Kingston in order to move the Fort Augusta inmates there. However, with the relaxation of the notice, the department says it now has time to do the costing in time for 2013/2014 budget funding to finance "major construction" works for the relocation of the 250 women.
Prendergast said that among the structural problems at the South Camp facility, which formerly housed 250 male inmates, is that it only has male cells, with no proper "ablution" (female toilet) facilities and was not suitable for housing women.
But former minister of transport and works Mike Henry, now an Opposition member of the PAAC, told the committee that an 18-month delay would be in conflict with the timeframe for the opening of the Panama Canal, and could jeopardise "one of the most important economic opportunities for the country to recover itself".
"An 18-month extension will never meet with plans for the reopening of the Panama Canal, which is so important to the country," said Henry, who was instrumental in negotiating the project under the previous government.
After committee chairman Edmund Bartlett insisted on a timeline for the removal of the inmates and the handing over of the site, the permanent secretary admitted that the DCS did not have a date for the removal of the prison.
However, she said that because the ministry anticipates that the prison will have to be removed some time soon, the DCS was preparing itself for it.
But she explained that because the ministry is strapped for cash, the DCS wouldn't want to spend money now on something that is delayed, when it has other demands that are critical, and so the Fort Augusta removal has been put on hold for the time being
"However, the Ministry of Finance works very well with the Ministry of National Security, because it understands the importance of what we have to do on other levels," she said. "And so, when we get the notice that we need to remove from Fort Augusta, we will ensure that in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance, we allocate the funds to do the work that the DCS needs to get done to facilitate the move."
She assured the committee that the ministry would not let the Fort Augusta prison become an impediment to "the progress and development of Jamaica".
The terminal is one of three projects, including the North South link of Highway 2000 and the Gordon Cay container transshipment hub, considered of strategic importance to the development of the Jamaican economy, particularly the opening of the widened Panama Canal.