Oh, for prison reform

It is interesting how simple folk, in ordinary situations can spark flames that burn their way into history. Rosa Parks, a coloured dressmaker, defied the clear understanding that coloured people were to sit at the back of the bus. She refused to give a white man her seat and the American civil rights movement was born.

George Floyd could accurately be described as the stone the builder rejected. He was involved in a matter over the validity of a US$20 bill. His last breath under a white policeman’s knee gave life to a worldwide movement that seems set to change the way black people are treated.

In Jamaica, Noel Chambers came to national attention when the shameful circumstances of his death in prison turned the spotlight on the disgustingly horrible penal system in this country.

Of all the developed countries, our penal system most closely resembles that of the United States in objective and outcome. With a prison population of 2.3 million, America has, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the world. That rate is 655 per 100,000 — higher than Germany and the UK with 77 per 100,000 and much higher than Japan with 30 per 100,000. Jamaica’s rate is 168 per 100,000. In fact, if America’s prison population formed a city it would be larger than most cities in the US.

The thinking behind America’s prison policy has a lot to do with racism. With 13 per cent of the population being black, blacks account for more than twice this percentage in prison population. Although whites account for 64 per cent of the population, they account for less than half that percentage in prison. Not surprising when one considers that a white boy and a black boy are convicted of the same offence in the same court the white boy gets two years and the black boy can get 26 years.

In recent times, however, lawmakers are becoming aware that, with all their wealth, there are some serious social costs to this arrangement that money will not fix. So there is now talk of prison reform.

Prison reform is one of the rare issues with bipartisan support in the US government.

When I was a young probation officer I had reason to visit our prisons. The idea of prison reform formed in my mind and never left. How, I wondered, could anyone be expected to emerge from this hell hole and be expected to rejoin society? Individuals enter the system because they are unable to conform to the norms of society. And they leave less able so to do.

I prepared a document containing what a functioning prison would look like and do. I went to my boss with the document. As soon as he heard what it was about he sent me to his deputy. About half a minute into explaining what the document was about, the deputy went back to what he was doing and didn’t even know when I left the room.

A year later I was surprised to receive a call from Maurice Bishop, of Grenada, late one night. He had seen the document that was in the possession of a former university classmate who worked for international organisations and was very excited with the proposals. He said he wanted to give the proposals a try in Grenada and would be seeking funding for the project. Months later, he was dead.

Years later, Andrew Holness became prime minister for the first time. I felt he was the ideal person to understand what I was thinking. I made significant changes to the document based on new thinking about drugs, mental health, and related matters and delivered the document to the gate of Jamaica House. I guess the document did not leave the guard house.

Two years ago I was engaged in a review of certain entities, including our correctional department. My first concern was the presence of mentally ill people in prisons. I visited the chief medical officer at Bellevue Hospital. He was a storehouse of knowledge with progressive ideas, but was about to go on long leave. I am sure the present situation exists because he is not consulted.

When the developmentally disabled prisoners are added to the mentally ill this accounts for a significant minority in our prisons. I often say that the brain is the only part of the body which, when ill, evokes shame and not sympathy. Mentally ill prisoners end up in segregation units that worsen their condition as they are often incapable of understanding their condition. They need to be removed from the prisons as a matter of urgency and relocated in a section of the Bellevue Hospital specially prepared for their accommodation.


Exploring options

Prison is a terrible, toxic torture chamber. No one should be put there unless there is no alternative. May I suggest sentencing alternatives for those offenders who are not a clear and present danger to the lives of citizens. Sentencing options could include fines, mediation, restoration of property, and community service, including up to 300 hours of demanding, unpaid work. Illiterate persons would be required to attend literacy classes and become functionally literate before the sentence is complete.

Individuals whose offences are found to be caused by their addiction to drugs should be sent for treatment as part of the sentencing arrangement.

Those who are found to be in violation of the sentencing arrangements could be imprisoned for the first offence and the new one.

The objectives here are to reduce the cost of prisons to taxpayers, reduce the chance of repeating the offence, but more importantly, to keep the family intact, the offender in his job, and living up to his obligations to society.

Some people, released after just one year, have been shocked to see the changes in their families — when these families can be found. Often children end up cotching with strange, unsuitable people and not attending school and/or the daughter becomes pregnant at 14.

Now unemployed and unemployable, many of these conditions turn out to be irreversible. Selling ganja does not mean that one cannot be a good father.

There are people so scared from abuse and neglect that they become dangerously violent and unable to manage anger. These people are a serious threat to society. It is the duty of the Government to put these individuals in a place where they can no longer be a threat to society. There is no alternative but a secure prison.

For this purpose, I recommend that government identify 600 acres of land to build a modern facility with classrooms, training facilities, and farming options. Here inmates will be required to become highly proficient in at least two unrelated marketable skills. They would be required to engage in productive labour, the proceeds of which to be distributed thus:

* 50 per cent to go to the victims of their crime

* 20 per cent to go to their dependents

* 15 per cent contribution for their upkeep

* 15 per cent to be given to them on their release from prison


Where the inmate had resources before incarceration a decision should be made as to the use of these resources. Whatever is not needed for modest family upkeep should be divided between victim support and the offender’s upkeep in prison.

There are, as we speak, individuals of means incarcerated in our prisons. Their children live like royalty and those children who the inmate robbed of their breadwinner are out of school and suffering. Can this be right?

The facility I propose will come at a cost. The objective is to ensure that, on release, 10 or 15 years later, ex-inmates will be tech savvy and not be a burden to society.

How will this facility be funded? I remember the British offering $5.5 billion for a prison and this was rejected. Allow me to say this: The immense economic inequality that is seen in the world today is due in large part to European colonisation. If we should go back in time, say, 500 years, when this colonisation initiative started, we would be surprised to find that there was little inequality and only small differences between the rich and poor countries — some estimates may be a factor of four. Today the differences are a factor of more than 40. This is due to the sweat, blood, torture and theft which is really what colonisation was about. Indeed, that British prime minister and his wife are both from families which benefited directly from the proceeds of colonisation, this ensures that they, their children, and their children’s children will never, ever want for bread. The reparation thing is not working for us. So if they offer us a bedless brothel, with one retired worker, grab it and make the best of it.

May I suggest that we revisit this matter and up the ante to $9 billion. Pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes. A man given to pride is usually proud of the wrong thing. I don’t really care who from which party said what.

Many close their eyes to the evil that is Tower Street. This is because they think we should inflict pain on wrongdoers and disable criminal offenders. May I suggest that they remember that these people will be back with us at some point. So, just memorise five words, “I want to be safe.”


Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or


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