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British anger boils over Jamaicans in UK prisons

DIANE ABBOTT

Sunday, April 06, 2014    

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British indignation about Jamaican prisoners in British jails continues to bubble away. Last week, our newspapers reported that the Jamaican Government has refused to agree to a compulsory deal to send the prisoners back to Jamaica. Apparently the Jamaican courts have said that this would be unconstitutional. This has been met with some anger in the British media.

Jamaicans are the third largest foreign contingent in British jails. There are 692 men and 45 women altogether. In total there are 10,600 foreigners from 157 countries in British prisons and they cost the British taxpayer nearly £400 million a year. Because of the cost, public pressure to see foreign prisoners returned to their country of origin is mounting.

The Jamaican Government's decision is seen as a setback for British ministers. And there is some criticism that they are not trying hard enough. The British have spent years trying to persuade Jamaica to take back their prisoners, but successive Jamaican governments have stoutly refused.

A voluntary agreement to allow prisoner transfers was signed in 2007. Seven years later, it still has not been ratified by the Jamaican Parliament. And there seems little prospect of this happening.

But even if the British could get a deal, it would be difficult to transfer prisoners without their consent. Being transferred back to Jamaica would not make things, like family visits, easier. And this might be welcomed, particularly by female prisoners. However, British prison officials think that very few Jamaican prisoners would willingly allow themselves to be transferred.

This is because the advantages of being closer to family would be far outweighed by the fact that prison conditions in Jamaica are much worse than in Britain. Furthermore, any attempt to transfer prisoners against their will would, almost certainly, be met with legal challenge.

The prisoners could claim that their human rights were being breached and if they were settled in Britain and had children here they could also claim that their right to family life was being breached.

But British society continues to put pressure on the Government about the prisoner transfer issue. And the argument is emerging that the British Government should use the financial aid that it gives Jamaica as a means of pressuring the country to agree to prisoner transfers.

For instance, the influential Times newspaper wrote in a leader column last week: "Alongside the legal wrangling, the British Government needs to redouble its efforts in other ways. There is no reason why countries which are in receipt of British aid ought not to be asked, as one of the conditions, to improve and expand their jails so their citizens can return home... The best and most immediate answer might be deport prisoners at the point of sentencing and ask them to appeal through the legal process from their country of origin. In the meantime, we need to get tougher with economic penalties".

Comments online in British newspapers were harsh: "We give £75 million in aid to the Caribbean every year, much of it to support Jamaica. Turn this tap off now". "Put them all on a big rat-infested ship to Jamaica, leave it grounded on their beach. Job done, your dross is returned and UK taxpayers are £27 million better off". "Just stop all UK aid to Jamaica until a deal is reached. Raise the price of entering Britain for Jamaican nationals until it's resolved. This will help to recoup the costs involved in jailing their nationals."

Like the rest of the world, Britain is enduring a period of financial austerity with services being cut and many people fearful of losing their jobs. In this context, spending £40 million on housing foreign prisoners is a source of some anger. It is, as some have pointed out, a flea bite compared to what Britain made from Jamaica in the years of slavery.

But Jamaicans can expect that the British will continue to put pressure on their Government on the question of prisoner transfers.

— Diane Abbott is the British Labour party MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

www.dianeabbott.org.uk

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