Nine days wondering about prison deal or no deal

Jamaicans are good at getting excited about things, but just for a short while. The habit of having a ‘nine day wonder’ is common. The past nine days have been consumed by the badly managed announcement that Britain and Jamaica are cozying up to build a new prison in Jamaica, part-paid by the UK government, but on the condition that it be used to house at least up to 300 ‘Jamaican’ prisoners currently serving time in Blighty.

During these past nine days, we’ve heard a lot about how insulted we were by the British PM not only coming to give us this (wrongly termed) ‘gift’, but also telling us, and the rest of the world who feel aggrieved by the harsh history of trans-Atlantic slavery that we should “move on” from its painful legacy. I have no idea what he really meant. Suffice to say, that because he was ready to tell survivors of the Jewish Holocaust recently that the world should never forget their pain and suffering, means that his ‘move on’ suggestion had more than the bitter taste of gall.

But, the British PM left behind not just that bitter taste, but the now swirling storm over the new jailhouse.

My view is that, uncommon for diplomatic visits, which usually have a good dose of complimentary words and good karma associated with them, this recent landing by the British PM has turned into a PR disaster. It got that way from its beginning. The idea of not allowing the local media to question him was a mistake (how big depends on where you stand). Dissembling by the British High Commissioner about whose idea it was showed up the very thin layer of constant ‘pulling of wool over people’s eyes’ that is all too common in politics. Scrambling around to make the deal sound good for Jamaica could be the beginning of the end of some political careers. The whole thing is getting messy and like the broken egg, it’s contents can’t be put back into the shell. But, let’s try to get a few things straight.

Jamaica needs new accommodation for those who’ve broken the law. It needs to find funding for that, during a time when the government’s freedom to spend is about as tight as it’s ever been. But, it needs to do those two things without there being any deal that one of the financiers should add the ‘sweetner’ of sending a batch of villains to take up some of the new spaces.

We can argue the toss about whether the villains are truly Jamaican or not. What’s clear is that they committed crimes in Britain, not Jamaica, and should be the burden of the British penal system, not Jamaica’s. Admittedly, in the supposed sifting of whether the potential prisoners should be sent from Britain (as they are already due to be deported after their time in the clink) will be whether they committed crimes in Britain which are also crimes here. But, the Brits want rid of them.

British political realities may make it easier for its PM to want to do, and been seen to do, something significant to (1) get rid of ‘foreigners’ in British jails; (2) save the British taxpayers a good amount of wonga; and (3) maybe, appear to do something positive for one/some of its former colonies. Truth is, those labeled as Jamaicans have a disproportionate place in British jails, and for crimes (especially violent and drug-related ones) that really don’t sit well with most people. Truth is, the British taxpayers wants to get an ease, just like most others would anywhere in the world. Truth is, the stinking prisons we have in Jamaica–dating from slavery days, in the 1700s and 1800s–were built and left here, unmodernized by the British, while in full control of the island. Whatever would become of relations between newly independent Jamaica and Britain was not something that anyone could see in a crystal ball. But, c’mon, those jails were decrepit for decades. Maybe, what Mr. Cameron meant with his “move on” remark was to get rid of the stinking pits that had been used to house Jamaican villains. Moving on…

Truth is, Jamaica has been really slow (as is its wont) to act to improve prison conditions. It’s not been a national priority, because we have a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality to crime. The national mood is into vengeance and vindictiveness for wrongdoers and really doesn’t have time for any cuddly approach that focuses on rehabilitation. Well, sadly for those who feel that way, the rest of the world doesn’t. So, once again, we’re in the naughty corner, and can’t get out unless we decide to play by the rules that the other boys use. Well, the government has a way to start grappling with that, and some nice lolly to help in the form of 25 million pounds, if…

The Minister of National Security is now fast-moving on a media blitz to ‘explain’ what appears to be going on. Over the weekend, the newspapers had a colorful 2 page ad trying to outline the basic numbers and ideas behind the deal. Just yesterday, he took to Twitter to tell us about an online chat today! That is after trying to explain to Parliament on Tuesday what was going on, and then holding a media briefing on the issues yesterday. Enough! Can we take so many attempts at openness?

Chat to Peter on a mobile device or computer near you, during today’s lunch break…
Good luck with all of that, Peter, I say.

One of the flies in the ointment is that the news flow that the Jamaican government is trying to shape keeps getting messed up by UK ‘misinformation’. It started with an official press release that stated an agreement had been signed to transfer prisoners as part of the prison-build deal. That is not so, Mr. Bunting said: there’s a non-binding memorandum of understanding that has to be fleshed out, and a transfer agreement yet to work out. The High Commissioner added his pennyworth. If only the British could be encouraged to just let the Jamaican government squirm its way to clarity without constantly interrupting!

I’ve a feeling that this nine-day thing may run quite a while. The official Opposition is miffed because their leader got a wigging in Parliament and a reminder from Mr. Bunting to not be so uppity, and act like he’s still the PM, and then decided to take their marbles and run home. Parliamentary walkouts are a familiar thing in Jamaica, and it’s a pity that the International Olympics Committee has not yet seen fit to add this ‘sport’. Anyway, they then said they’re not going to be party (sic) to any discussions about any deal. Yah-boo!

Oh, where would we be without some good political posturing? The deal idea is not new, and was considered by the Opposition, when in power (so said former Security Minister, Dwight Nelson–fresh from not recalling certain things to do with Tivoli…but, let’s move on from that…). Maybe, their upset is about how little of the funding the Brits are willing to put up. Who knows?

Meanwhile, some on social media are having a whale of a time Googling and trying to find information that shows that a deal has just been signed, or that one was signed some time ago, and that the government is ‘being economical with the truth’. I suspect that some of them will be presenting their findings to Minister Bunting later today.

In all this was the sideshow of the Information Minister taking umbrage at having her integrity questioned. I’m not going to put my oar in there, not least because I did not hear her interview. But, it has the taste of ‘that’s what you get for…’. No, don’t go there!

So, let’s look forward to how we moved from putting out the bunting for the visit of the British to the putting out of the Bunting to explain why the British flag bunting was not well appreciated. I’m sure that last week it wasn’t expected to have gotten so messy. But, as the late Harold Wilson reportedly said:  ‘A week is a long time in politics’. Let’s see where we are in nine days’ time.

Fly the bunting!
Fly the bunting!
This discovery of the power of conversation could be infectious. Who knows where it may lead?

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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