EXECUTIVE director of the human rights group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), Mickel Jackson is urging the Andrew Holness Administration to use the latest United States human rights report on Jamaica to make well-needed legislative and operational changes to improve the lot of all Jamaicans.
"We certainly support the contents of [the] report because some of these areas of concern in the report we have already flagged in terms of the human rights abuses that citizens have indicated that they face by State actors," Jackson told the Jamaica Observer.
"It is on [this] basis that we are asking the Government and its officials… to take heed of the contents of the report and ensure that the country improves its standing when it comes to human rights issues. For example, JFJ had flagged the matter of the uses of force by members of the security forces, especially in areas that have been declared states of public emergency (SOEs) or zones of special operation (ZOSOs)," said Jackson.
In its 2022 report released on Monday, the US State Department chided the Jamaican Government for its performance in areas such as fatal shootings by members of the security forces; allegations of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment of individuals in police custody and in correctional facilities; and the treatment of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community.
Having digested the report, Jackson charged that the area of fatal shootings by members of the security forces is one which is in need of urgent attention.
"We saw an increase in 2022 (134) over 2021 (127) in terms of the number of people who were fatally shot by members of the security forces, and we have to be guided by the data and what the data is saying.
"Outside of those who were fatally shot, INDECOM [the Independent Commission of Investigations] — and even within JFJ — when we look at the increased reports that we have been getting, people have been calling more to say that they have been abused by members of the security forces, more so members of the JCF [Jamaica Constabulary Force]."
According to Jackson, JFJ is maintaining its call for more human rights training for Jamaican law enforcement officers and that they are given the necessary psychosocial support to do their job.
"In some instances we need strong condemnation from the prime minister to say that people who are employed within the State cannot break the law to uphold the law. That has to be a hard line that is drawn by the Government so we are hoping that they look at it from that perspective and send a signal that there is true respect of the human rights and the life of all Jamaican citizens," added Jackson.
She argued that the challenges being faced by Jamaicans, which are outlined in the US report, call into question how much resources the Government is allocating to mitigate human rights abuses.
"We have been calling for body-worn cameras as we believe that if you are going to be declaring SOEs — and remember JFJ is not for the continuing use of SOEs as we believe how that is being utilised is unconstitutional — but if the Government is determined to continue using SOEs, until a court declares the unconstitutionality of it, we are saying to the Government to ensure that every single law enforcement officer is wearing a body camera.
"In addition to the body-worn cameras we, and INDECOM, are calling for less lethal weapons to ensure that the increased number of fatalities, when it comes to those who are mentally ill, can be reduced as best as possible," said Jackson.
The JFJ head charged that members of the police force have also been calling for increased training in how to deal with people who are mentally ill, as well as other support systems, so that when they are deployed to deal with these incidents it does not result in death.
"My [main] concern though is that the things in the report are not new to us, for example prison overcrowding," said Jackson as she pointed to the section of the report which noted that, "Correctional facilities were significantly overcrowded. At times, cells in the maximum-security facility at Tower Street held three times the intended capacity. Cells were dark and dirty, with poor bathroom and toilet facilities and limited ventilation."
According to Jackson, some of the new laws being contemplated by the Government may very well exacerbate an already bad situation in the prisons.
"Taking into consideration the prison overcrowding matter when you impose high, mandatory minimum sentences and you remove that judicial discretion, you will have more people going in for a longer period of time — including minors. You want to seem tough on crime but you could be making the conditions in the prisons worse," said Jackson who is an organisational development specialist with more than 14 years' experience in human rights, HIV and AIDS, youth and education development, social enterprise development, and capacity building.
She reiterated JFJ's call for at least one additional prison to be built to replace the prisons which have exceeded their capacity and breach international standards.
"However, we place on record that we are against private prisons and hope the Government will invest resources in ensuring the [improvement of] inhumane conditions of our prisons, with greater focus on rehabilitation," said Jackson.