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Run an audit of lock-ups

Monday, December 03, 2018

Amid the point/counter-point brouhaha in which the public defender and the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) are now engaged, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck has placed on the table a problem that this country has long identified but has done precious little to solve — the conditions of the island's jails.

According to Minister Chuck, after he took office in his present ministry and saw the state of some holding areas in which people who had been charged were kept, he was ashamed. He also described as appalling some of the toilet conditions in the holding areas.

Over many years, media in this country have reported on the poor conditions of the island's jails and prisons. First-hand accounts of what exists have often been related to journalists by ex-detainees, in particular.

Overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate toilet facilities are but a few of the complaints.

Older readers will recall the case of Messrs Agana Barrett, Vassell Brown and Ian Forbes who died at the Constant Spring Police Station in October 1992.

The three men, who were picked up by the police to determine whether they were wanted in connection with any crimes, were placed in a cell measuring 8ft x 7ft. They were among 19 men being held in the cell for several hours between October 22 and 24.

The men were found dead on October 24 and reports published after their demise indicated that they died from a lack of oxygen.

In a case filed against the State by Mr Barrett's mother, Ms Doris Fuller, the trial judge found that the cell was extremely hot due to congestion. “There was very little air available and this was only accessible through small holes in a metal door for the cell. The cell had no windows and they were surrounded by a concrete wall. Water dampened the floor and, in order to quench thirst, perspiration and water dripping from the walls had to be used, as no drinking water was made available for them... one man had to drink his own urine in order to quench his thirst...”

No human being, regardless of his or her transgressions, deserves to be subjected to such horrendous conditions which, at the very least, infringe on the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.

Minister Chuck, in his address to justices of the peace in Montego Bay last week, said he had instructed his ministry to ensure that all holding areas, including bathroom facilities, at the island's courts are improved.

That, if they can get it done, will take care of just small part of the problem, as there still exists the woeful conditions at police lock-ups across the island.

It is an issue that needs to be dealt with, as holding people in subhuman conditions will only serve to make them bitter and encourage thoughts of antisocial behaviour that can eventually lead to more criminality.

The public defender, in her report to Parliament, has said that the conditions in which people are being held under the state of public emergency in St James are very poor. The St James police have countered that those claims are not true.

An independent audit of the lock-ups islandwide would, we believe, settle this matter, after which the Government needs to allocate funding and resources to improve the conditions.