Jamaica Observer, By Alecia Smith Legislators are concerned about the impact higher minimum sentences for murder will have on the country’s two high-security prisons — St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre and the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre — which are already overcrowded and will be expected to take in more convicts for longer periods.

The Government has proposed the amendment of several pieces of related legislation to provide harsher penalties for murder. Among the proposed changes is a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years for capital murder.

Members of the joint select committee now reviewing the Bills — the Criminal Justice (Administration) (Amendment) Act, 2023; The Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Act, 2023 ; and The Child Care and Protection (Amendment) Act, 2023 — also bemoaned the deplorable conditions of these institutions and questioned the ability of prisons to provide meaningful rehabilitation for inmates.

At the committee’s meeting on Wednesday, Opposition Senator Donna Scott-Mottley pointed to the inhumane conditions as well as the “extreme level” of overcrowding in prisons, arguing that with the mandatory minimum “you’re swelling the prison population”.

She added: “The conditions cannot do anything but dehumanise a person, and those of us who practise in the criminal law will be able to tell you that the person who is first apprehended and the person who you see three weeks later are simply not the same person. The fear, the vulnerability when they are just apprehended is replaced by a kind of braggadocio, ‘bad man attitude’ in three weeks,” Scott Mottley said.

The Opposition senator’s comments sided with the submission of the Office of the Public Defender (OPD), which argued that increased sentencing minimums will have a long-term impact on the prison population.

“The lack of capacity for large intakes in our high security prisons, the Catherine Adult Correctional Centre and the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, is an established fact. The conditions at these institutions are notorious and do not foster meaningful rehabilitation,” the submission read.

Opposition committee member Denise Daley said there seems to be a lack of understanding about the current overburdened prison system.

“I don’t think we have one good prison in this country. When I say good prison, I’m not talking about luxury, I’m talking about amenities to make sure that we can reform people, for them to live in a condition that is not too inhumane,” she said.

Chair of the committee and justice minister Delroy Chuck admitted that his numerous visits to the Tower Street and St Catherine facilities were “stressful” and “very heart-rending” occasions seeing first-hand the conditions in which the warders have to work, or the rooms for interviewing clients. “I am not denying that you have two fairly reasonable prisons — Tamarind Farm and Richmond Farm — but district prison [St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre] and GP [Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre], believe me, are sad reflections of what we call prisons,” he said.

He argued, however, that the state of Jamaica’s prisons “unfortunately is a different discussion” beyond what the committee can take on and suggested that legislators “compartmentalise” the issues in their minds.

“I’m not too sure that this committee can deal with the unfortunate conditions in our penal institutions. We can make any recommendation but at this time we have to compartmentalise our mind and deal with the issues before us. I’m not denying, and don’t get me wrong, I really believe much more should be done to improve the conditions everywhere, including in the prisons,” he said.

To this suggestion, Scott Mottley asked if the Government and the legislators are not supposed to be concerned about the possibility of rehabilitation. “What is it that we are trying to do, then? We’re just trying to punish?” she said.

Chuck responded by saying that the committee is not going to solve all the problems “and that is why even when I hear arguments about children [that] we must look to their background, which area they come from, what was their family background; these are considerations, which undoubtedly should be taken to account, but we can’t solve them here.”

“… For the legislature, we have to look at whether the sentence of the court or the sentence we want to impose is reflective, in my view, of the legislature’s consideration about persons who commit murder because at the end of the day, this is why this Bill is here, and it has to be supportive of the fight that we have against the offence of murder, which is so prevalent across every corner of Jamaica,” he said.

Government Senator Sherene Golding Campbell said she shared the concerns of Scott Mottley, as well as Chuck, in terms of the need to address the issues that the society is facing regarding crime.

“I don’t think though, that as legislators, we have the luxury of compartmentalising anything. I think when we sit in the people’s House we have to be concerned with all those things that touch and affect people, but our purview under these amendment Bills is to amend provisions dealing with sentencing periods,” she said.

“What we can do as a joint select committee is indicate in our report the issues that have come to the fore as a result of the engagement of the stakeholders and ask the Parliament to have that discussion in the debate and send a message to the executive that these matters need to be addressed. That is within the purview of the legislators and I think it’s something we must be concerned about because in instituting mandatory minimum sentences, it is relevant what is going to happen to that offender when they enter the penal system.

She argued that not all convicts will sit and die in prison; they are going to come back into society, so legislators should be concerned with what is happening in that process.

“So our report can include some indication to the Parliament that the joint select committee is concerned about the state of the penal system and would wish for the rehabilitative programmes there to be robust programmes designed to rehabilitate and not to foster and a culture where we end up with people coming out of the system being even more of a danger to society, than they went in,” she said.

Chuck conceded, remarking that Golding Campbell was “totally correct” and that the joint select committee should take note of many of the issues outside of dealing with the sentencing matter.