JAMAICA could well have privately operating prisons soon.
Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding told the Senate Friday that the Government is looking at the potential of a public/private venture to fill the need for a new, modern facility in the Kingston Metropolitan Region that would ease the burden on the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre (TSACC) in Kingston, and the St Catherine Adult Correctional (SCACC) in Spanish Town.
"I happen to know that the Minister of National Security (MNS) is looking at the potential for a public/private partnership, spearheaded through the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ), to find private investors and the funding necessary to build a modern facility," he said.
Golding, who was responding to questions about poor conditions in the island's correctional centres posed by Opposition senators Tom Tavares Finson and Dr Christopher Tufton, said that this was necessary because of the overcrowding and poor infrastructure of the aged institutions.
Tavares Finson had complained about the poor conditions in which the inmates were detained and the warders/correctional officers worked.
"The remand area at the front of General Penitentiary (the old name for the TSACC), residents of Kingston and St Andrew wouldn't keep their dogs those conditions in which young men are held," Senator Tavares Finson said.
Dr Tufton recommended that the Government establish a committee to examine the possibility of private prisons, noting that hundreds of such facilities were now operating effectively and profitably in the United States and the United Kingston.
He cautioned, however, that this might be seen as being controversial and pointed to other projects which have been denounced by the country's church leaders as allowing the private sector to make a profit from crime.
"The substantive issue is to ensure that Jamaicans and others who are incarcerated are given humane treatment while behind bars," Tufton insisted.
He suggested that the minister appoint a committee to look at the various models for the private/public partnership. But Golding said that the government was already taking that course.
"We are pursuing it even in the context of the very difficult economic environment in which we find ourselves," he said.
Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate Senator Arthur Williams told the Jamaica Observer after the sitting that the idea was not new and even preceded the 2007/11 JLP administration in which he was state minister of national security in charge of the Department of Correctional Services (DSC).
Williams said that the JLP toyed with the idea of providing the land, then having the private sector build the prison on it and operate it, with the Government paying for the keep of each of the inmate.
"But the cost was too much to build the prison and we couldn't get the private sector support we needed," Williams admitted.
Last November, permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security Annmarie Barnes told Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) that it would cost the Government some $25 billion to build a new 5,000-capacity facility.
Barnes said then that the ministry had been looking at a public/private sector partnership in the construction and management of prisons.
The DCS in a submission to the PAAC, outlined some of the challenges it is facing included major structural defects at the Tower Street and St Catherine prisons and attendant safety and security risks; overcrowding at both facilities and poor infrastructure.
The DCS suggested improvements including the construction of a new adult facility and the modernisation of existing juvenile and adult facilities. Also on the list of reconmendations is a new staff structure to improve the department's capacity to carry out its mandate and adequate budgetary allocations to address the training of staff, given the implications of the modernisation process.
However, like most other government departments, the main challenge still facing the department is where to find the funding.