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If the late Mr Carl Rattray turns in his grave…

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mr Rudyard Spencer, the junior minister for national security, last Tuesday announced the reopening of Howard Pre-Release Hostel at Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, better known as General Penitentiary or GP. It is news that could easily have escaped the unaware.

The facility, according to Mr Spencer — who has portfolio responsibility for the Department of Correctional Services, will improve population control at the prisons by housing low-risk inmates who have less than 18 months of their sentences remaining and who “are deemed to be adequately prepared for release”.

Of more immediate importance is the fact that the hostel programme is part of a strategic plan aimed at providing a stimulating environment that will enhance the gradual reintegration of inmates into society, Minister Spencer has assured.

If the late Justice Minister Carl Rattray turns in his grave at the announcement, it would be to achieve a more comfortable position because of his satisfaction, and not out of disappointment with Mr Spencer and his team at the Department of Correctional Services.

Mr Rattray spent much of his time in office during the 1970s working to rehabilitate inmates, and had established a similar hostel to prepare them to become productive citizens upon their return to society after doing the time for their crime.

It was a time when being sent to prison was a one-way street to hell. Even inmates incarcerated for petty crimes migrated to major crimes under the tutelage of hardened criminals who spent their days, not in productive activities, but arranging their next crime ahead of release.

Countries with enlightened correctional programmes are testimony to the wisdom of rehabilitating inmates through skill and academic programmes that ensure they leave prison better than when they entered.

Norway, for example, has long had a practice of allowing inmates to go home on weekends to be with their families; encouraging reading and studying while under lockdown; and planning for the day they would be released.

The Jamaican inmates selected for the pre-release hostel will be provided, we are told, with medical services, counselling, religious and recreational programmes, while being required to give community services. There are also plans to have them engaged in self-sufficiency activities such as bee-keeping and ornamental fish rearing.

The ministry adds that participants will be required to contribute 25 per cent of their earnings towards maintenance of the hostel, instead of leaving all the burden on the public purse.

It might be just a dream now, but we must look to the day when prison conditions, as in Norway, Sweden and several other countries, put the emphasis less on punishment and much more on the character of the person who must be able to become an asset to society.

In Jamaica, the customary reaction to pre-release hostel programmes, such as the one announced by Mr Spencer, is that prisoners are being given a get-out-of-jail-free card. After all, it is reasoned, the minimum-security facilities allow for them to escape at will.

The success of the programme depends heavily on how well the Hostel Committee does its work in selecting the inmates to participate. One or two bad apples might slip through, but in the main it must be people who are really ready to resume a normal life.