Go back to prison deal talks, says trade unionist

Senior trade unionist Vincent Morrison is urging the Government to go back to the table with Britain to restart negotiations around the prison deal that the country was offered in 2015, which included a prisoner transfer arrangement that would have started this year.

He was speaking against the background of renewed debate about the conditions of the island’s 17th century prison system, following the scandalous death of 81-year-old Noel Chambers at the ramshackle Tower Street Correctional Centre in Kingston, where he had been locked up for 40 years, without trial.

The case was brought to light in the first quarter report of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), reigniting discussions about the rejection of the prison deal, and prompting Prime Minister Andrew Holness — who was leader of the Opposition at the time — to point out that the offer was effectively rejected by the Simpson-Miller Administration.

In a statement, Holness said when the issue was raised his Cabinet reaffirmed that the previously held position that the prison offer and accompanying memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Britain, should be rejected.

“Given the overwhelming public opposition to the offer formalised in the MoU, the PNP [People’s National Party] apparently backed away from the deal, saying they did not sign an MoU. In fact the then minister of national security promised in a statement to Parliament that he would set up a special select committee to oversee the MoU. There was, however, never any report of their work in this regard,” Holness said.

But Morrison maintained that, “they should re-engage the British to see whether they can renegotiate a deal that will see the construction of a modern, proper, facility that can provide a better work environment for the workers we represent, and also to provide more humane conditions for the inmates”.

He said fears surrounding one of the conditions of the £25 million deal, that there would be a mass deportation of inmates to finish up their sentences in the island, would most likely not be realised, pointing to a similar deal which Britain has successfully struck with Nigeria. Under the proposed arrangement in 2015, Britain would have sent back Jamaicans serving sentences of at least four years there, and who had 18 months or more left, to finish their sentences here.

According to Morrison, other jurisdictions which have similar arrangements with Britain have seen fewer prisoners returned or deported. “The reason is that the prisoners are entitled to legal representation and it takes a lot of time to go through all the legal arrangement. So the flood that we expected would not happen under that arrangement.”

“What we now find is that it is happening based on the present where the British, the Americans, and the Canadians can send back the deportees in droves. The point is that if we had that arrangement in place, we would have less deportees coming back at this time,” Morrison insisted.

In September 2015, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, on an official visit to the island, announced that Britain would help finance the construction of a prison here. At the time over 600 Jamaicans were reported to be imprisoned in Britain, and the deal was said to have the potential to save taxpayers £10 million a year when transfers began in 2020. Jamaica is fourth among the top 10 countries that are represented in Britain’s prisons, with just over 500 in 2019.

As debate raged over the prison deal, the former National Security Minister Peter Bunting stressed that the arrangement could not go ahead without parliamentary approval and a legislative framework. There were talks of a special select committee, but this did not materialise, although the Government said the country desperately needed the funding to help build a new prison.

Morrison said unions representing the majority of the workers in the prison system at the time had written to Bunting in October 2015. “What really struck me at that meeting was the revelation of the conditions that existed in the prisons, and it’s not only the conditions affecting them. These prisons are really relics of slavery…I personally believe that what is existing now is a disgrace,” he said.

The trade unionist argued that it is “foolish” on the part of the present Government not to negotiate.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Holness said prisons are in need of urgent attention, but that the original provisions in the budget for some of the infrastructure work had been cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, he assured that his Administration was committed to improving the conditions and would increase spending as the economy rebounds. “We are also exploring several other options to facilitate capital investment in our prison infrastructure. As a politically independent people, we must truly take on the independence mindset,” he stated.

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