Bernard Headley | Déjà Vu: That UK Prison Offer

Published: Tuesday | January 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Opposition Senator Lambert Brown succeeded last Friday in putting the Government on the defensive. He questioned sharply fellow senator and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamina Johnson Smith on what other, compromise plan(s) the Government had in place now that it has said no to the UK offer of £25 million to build for Jamaica a new maximum-security prison, which would house a substantial number of Jamaicans condemned for incarceration in the UK.

It so happens that, two or so weeks after the new Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government was installed, I wrote and sent an unsolicited, regular-citizen ‘memorandum’ to Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Minister of National Security Robert Montague, suggesting alternative ways of utilizing the UK funds. Here is a lightly edited version of the memorandum. My sense, and my hope, is that it’s not too late for the administration to incorporate, at least in principle, items I proposed back then.

  1. The two maximum-security prisons Jamaica has are inhumane, national embarrassments, which we should hastily put under wrecking balls. One of these prisons is on Tower Street, in Kingston; the other is in Spanish Town, St Catherine. But will hoped-for relief from our terrible crime situation come from building a larger and more expensive version of these two monstrosities? The weight of the criminological evidence suggests not!
  2. That which we expect from prisons ought logically to determine the kind of prison we build, or use UK funds to help build. Reflexive talk of building a new facility for mass incarceration would be going in the wrong direction, regardless of how ‘modern’ the facility would be. We’d be going in reverse to worldwide progressive trend of ‘de-prisoning’. Besides, mass prisons are known breeding grounds for reproducing more crime, especially organized gang crimes. Just wait, Professor and Gleaner columnist Carolyn Cooper has whimsically, but correctly, warned, ’till deported yardies from Britain meet up’ in our new mass prison with the ‘yardies from yard’, should the prison be built.
  3. Receiving for additional imprisonment in Jamaica Jamaicans who offended in the UK or in any other foreign countries simply not on. Rather, we should continue to receive these offenders (on condition that they are indeed bona fide Jamaican citizens) as convicted deported migrants (‘deportees’) who, with stepped-up support from major deporting countries, and intensive treatment and prudent monitoring, can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into the society.


  1. Undoubtedly, we do need prisons. But prisons ought to be, particularly in our high-crime setting, for meeting two separate objectives. The first is for immediate safety and protection; the other is to encourage and enable rehabilitation. Both are not normally successfully accomplished under the same roof.
  2. Every society has its share of the incorrigibly dangerous, from which ‘normal’ society must be protected. Informed guess is, though, that defined sociopaths habitual murderers, hit men, violent gang overlords, repeat rapists, chronic molesters number, in any given year, no more than five to at most 10 per cent of our maximum-security prison population. Several within this offender category may, sadly, be hopelessly irredeemable.
  3. We should use a portion of Mr Cameron’s pounds to build one small, maximum-security facility exclusively for the 300 to 400 bona fide sociopaths we normally produce per generation. The high-tech, high-security, but relatively small-capacity US federal prison at Marion, Illinois, USA, could, with adaptations, be a useful model.
  4. This new facility would house convicted and incorrigibly dangerous offenders for the rest of their lives, which should be left to end naturally on a prison bed. We could run inside the institution two or so for-profit prison industries.
  5. But there’s another type of institution we will have to build. It’s for the other 90 to 95 per cent of those we normally commit to prison who are not proven sociopaths. They are not individuals defined by their crimes, as in ‘hardened’ or habitual. Mercilessly spat out from disadvantaged settings, they are typically jobless urban youths who unwittingly, and wittingly, got lured, swept up, tricked or threatened into gangs and gang crimes.
  6. For the majority of these early offenders, change and transformation are more likely if programmes for their rehabilitation were to be undertaken in small, dedicated settings that, among other things, simulate, as well as replicate, through education, the civilising norms of structured community, and in building a wholesome self.
  7. We should take, then, the more significant portion of the funds the UK is offering to build two or three additional scaled and strategically located minimum-security institutions for offenders whom our scientific assessments say are redeemable.
  • Bernard Headley, PhD, is a retired professor of criminology.