12 years after the Armadale fire history could repeat itself
A scene from the fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in 2009.

ON Friday, May 22, 2009, the unspeakable happened: Seven girls who were in the care of the State perished in a fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre.

The 2010 enquiry into the cause of the fire revealed various inadequacies in the operations at Armadale and the apparent unfitness of the team who oversaw children in correctional State care. It was found that the young ladies within the facility started the fire, which was one of several fires over the months leading up to May 22, 2009. A month prior to the incident the ladies were placed in a small room (12 feet by 12 feet) as punishment and, while in that room, reportedly a police officer threw an explosive item in the room, allegedly contributing to the cause of the fire. The key for the room could not be found to release the girls in time, resulting in seven girls dying in the fire and others suffering terrible injuries. It was a tragic day in our country and, while some restitution was given to the survivors or their families, it remains that the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) was negligent, whether directly or indirectly, in discharging its duty to protect our young and vulnerable.

The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) would like to pay respects to those whose lives were lost and affected by the Armadale tragedy. We also want to take this opportunity to reflect on the systemic and operational issues that led to the fire and shine a light on the condition of State correctional care.

The Independent Commission for Investigations (INDECOM), in its quarterly report for July to September 2020, revealed disturbing details of the operations of Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Centre. It noted that, among other things, the penalties applied to the boys are inappropriate and the facilities they are expected to use are sub par when measured against international standards.

JYAN considers the report to be hard to digest when one considers that it seems to be a replica of the various reports completed in the aftermath of the Armadale fire. At Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Centre, “Jail Block” is where boys are placed for days at a time, often without the ability to leave to relieve themselves, when found to be in breach of rules, such as climbing trees; failing to rake premises; or going downstairs without a shirt. This bears an uncanny similarity to the “lockdown” practice at Armadale. Under this practice, in June 2020 a ward on Jail Block had a seizure but could not be attended to because a correctional officer left the centre with the only key to the cell, reportedly to make a duplicate. These events, again, are reminiscent of the circumstances that ended in death at Armadale. The 'cell' only has a sponge on the ground. This is already concerning enough, but becomes even more problematic when understood that several boys are placed in the cell, in some instances in only their underwear, as a strategy to militate against self-harm or possible suicide.

While a percentage of the boys at Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Centre would say that the facilities are satisfactory, the toilets have no seat, the faucets are missing in the showers, and they leak regularly. The Nelson Mandela Rules, which are international standards on prison management, speak to the need for sanitary installations, bathing and shower facilities, overall upkeep of the facility, and maintaining dignity. The managers of the facility should be vigilant and guided by these rules, as well as our own domestic laws governing childcare.

The Government of Jamaica must take the necessary steps to ensure that the Department of Correctional Services and other competent authorities with responsibility for the supervision of children in State care conduct thorough assessments of the operating procedures in all such facilities in Jamaica. JYAN recommends that current officers be reviewed and vetted for possible additional training.

We believe that State care should be proper care, and that rehabilitation of youngsters already found to be on the wrong path in life should ensure they are provided with the right behavioural guidance to become functional members of society.

It has been 12 years since the tragedy at Armadale and there are still many of the same mistakes and inadequacies visible in the system of State care today. The conditions at Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Centre may well exist in other facilities, or even worse. JYAN fears that the Government and its agents have not learnt from the tragedy and history could well be repeating itself. More children should not have to die for our leaders to learn this lesson.

Shannique Bowden is programme coordinator at Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or advocacy@youthadvocateja.org.

Shannique Bowden

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