Inmates in remand and rehabilitation centres in Jamaica are now at a greater risk of developing psychosocial problems, according to minister without portfolio in the Ministry of National Security, with responsibility for prisons, Matthew Samuda, who last week said that COVID-19 has put a damper on family visits and mentorship programmes.
During a tour of Horizon Adult Remand Centre and Metcalf Street Secure Juvenile Remand Centre in Kingston, Samuda said, “COVID has significantly affected rehabilitation. One of the areas that have hurt us is that the mentors and the mentorship programme have not been able to interact either with the juveniles or the adults as we would want. The mentorship programme, I would say, is the worst impacted by the COVID situation. Lack of visitation by family members has had significant, negative psychosocial effects on both juveniles and adults.”
Due to the pandemic, only people essential to the operations at the facilities are allowed entry, such as prison staff and lawyers.
Giving credence to the concerns harboured by Samuda was attorney-at-law Isat Buchanan who shared with the Jamaica Observer that he has had to be playing a double role as lawyer and messenger for his clients in a bid to keep families stable.
“I have to act, sometimes, as a conduit between parents and children in terms of my clients needing to know that their kids are okay and the kids needing to know that their fathers are okay. I have been incarcerated so I know what it is like not to see family and what it does for me seeing them.
“Not every lawyer will take up that role, but certainly, one can appreciate that visits break the monotony of being locked up indefinitely without human interaction. I speak to my clients and I do my best to ensure I visit as much as I can and I keep in touch. For those who have kids who are taking the examinations and stuff like that, the kids just want to communicate with their dads. I do my best to take down the necessary messages they want to give to their fathers and I tell them,” Buchanan shared.
He highlighted that on Sunday, May 9, which was celebrated as Mothers' Day, there was no accommodation for mothers to see their children who are incarcerated, adding that post-traumatic stress disorders usually develop from separation and anxiety.
“The prisoners do not know when visits will ever come back. So, if COVID-19 lasts 20 years and you have a 30 year sentence, you are never going to get visits? One of the things is that even when judges give you sentences they contemplate family life, which is a right under the constitution, notwithstanding the pandemic. Inmates should be able to interact with family members, and just because Government can't facilitate it doesn't mean that it is not a right and that there are less restrictive measures. It must give rise to the fact that persons are going to be affected, not just the inmate, but there is absenteeism in terms of the family life.
“Technically, they are experiencing what would be segregation in the United States prison system as punishment for behaving badly. There are certain privileges you get for behaving well while incarcerated, like visits, telephone, television, and other special things. If I am misbehaving and a warden says to me, 'Don't do that!', but I do it anyway, they remove you for fighting, put you in segregation, and you don't get visits. Even then, it is not indefinite. If they say no visits for six months, you do know that your visits would be restored if you behave yourself for six months,” Buchanan said.