UK prison offer: Time for some out-of-the box thinking?

The sting that many Jamaicans felt afterBritain’s  PM, David Cameron, not only told us to “move on” from the legacy of slavery but also offered the sweetener of conditional funding for a prison, in part to house unwanted ‘Jamaican’ criminals in the UK still burns. But, like the itch from a mosquito bite, it only gets worse with scratching; it needs some salve, like witch hazel. So, let’s try to take Dave’s advice and ‘move on’. Let’s show that we’ve matured from being chattel and of no worth, and come up with some different and positive ways out of this Pandora’s box that has been opened.

Maybe, the thing to do is to see how best we can use only the money offered by the UK–£25 million. Our dire fiscal situation demands that approach. That would help deal with the tough ask of trying to build a prison, if that funding represents only 40% of the total cost. Now, no one has yet shared with the public the specifications for the prison that we would get for £25 million. So far, the talk has been about building something that is ‘state-of-the-art’, to give better conditions and help with a move towards rehabilitative imprisonment. The talk has also been to build a jailhouse that will hold 1500-2000 prisoners. But, here is a thought. How about we try to build the prison Caribbean-style.

That could mean it’s built ‘piece-by-piece’, eg enough to build just a ground floor, or as much as £25 million will allow. Let’s say that the ‘1st phase’ will hold only one-third of the anticipated total, say 500-700. That would be enough to house the anticipated maximum due to be sent by the UK, ie 300. So the Brits couldn’t complain that we’ve not lived up to our end of the ‘deal’. That appeals to my economics brain, as we then don’t have any massive fiscal burden added to the country. Yes, we still have to fund the upkeep and integration of the new arrivals from Blighty.

That running cost need lends itself to more creative thinking. I’m all for rehabilitating criminals, but society generally, and Jamaica, in particular, has a punitive bent. So, let’s work with that. We need to find ways in which some/most of the cost of upkeep falls onto prisoners themselves. That goes in the direction of ‘repaying a debt’ to society. We should be thinking about how the labour and mental skills of the criminals can be best used to generate revenue to help defray their costs to the country. I’m not stacked with all the ideas, but many options exist to do rehabilitation and earn from the process. If what the criminals could teach us were not so antisocial, the easy option would be to have them assigned as tutors, who could earn from sharing their knowledge. The recent news of how a team of prisoners beat out Harvard students in a debating contests is exciting and tells people that there’s more than a glimmer of hope for those in prisons with the right aptitude, attitude, and opportunities. Let’s stop prisons being schools for scoundrels. Educators, come up with some creative options.

All those graduates who cannot find work, get ready to lend your training to help others who need to learn. If a stint in schools in not for you, then get to a prison, buddy!

In that vein, I’m all for enhancing opportunities to learn skills while in jail, so would be keen to see incentives that point towards a productive and legal life after a few years in the pokey. That lends itself to thinking about how education could be a ‘meal ticket’ or ‘early exit’ pass for those who apply themselves. Could we think about a reward (of less time) for those who gain academic qualifications? Say, 6 months less for each CSEC exam passed, or scale it depending on passing grades? How about offering long-term prisoners three years off for taking and passing a three-year degree course? In the world of the Internet, the online course is just a button away.

Incentives like these could be worked to make time at the new-fangled ‘Sing Sing’ something to which good behaviour in another jail can lead. Think about it!

What about the location? It should not be anywhere near Kingston, which is already overcrowded and whose resources are so under strain as to be crazy. Let’s use the opportunity to ‘redevelop’ elsewhere. With a wry smile, I eye the north coast.

One option is to consider using land and/or buildings already in place and doing some kind of retrofit. To my crazed mind, it’s perhaps fitting to think about a new use for the ‘white elephant’ that is the Trelawny Mulitpurpose Stadium. Could one of its multipurposes be to house prisoners? Obviously, some thinking would have to go into doing this, but perhaps the site already has basically much of what is needed.

Trelawny Multipurpose Stadium
Something appealing about Trelawny as a location is the fact that, much as we shudder at the thought, crime is escalating in the western areas of the island, and now outstrips that in the Kingston/St. Andrews/St. Catherine area. Somehow, in a compassionate sense, it may be more palatable in this country of essentially struggling people that a new prison caters more to the visiting needs of those connected with this new wave of crime. Head west!

The other out-of-the-box western location may be the Outameni site, which so far has found no bidders. Let’s see how that one goes, though, because it would be preferable to keep a cultural touristic site, if it can be sold as such. Chances to earn foreign exchange shouldn’t be thrown away too easily.

Once we’ve fixed on a site, how about we think differently about what kind of prison we should build? How impossible is it to envisage a prison that reflects the tropical nature of the island? I’m not suggesting that the prison be open-air, with bamboo fences, waterfalls, and banana leaf roofing, but maybe that is not so crazy a starting point.

Let the inmates turn their hands at making all the furniture and fittings for the prison, and then make a business of that. In Britain, Cargo furniture (founded 130 years ago) is based around the use of pallet-style wood framing. We’re good and working with wood and have lots of it. Couldn’t we turn this into an opportunity? Likewise, Ikea furniture is based on some simple design lines for self-assembly wood furniture. Isn’t it possible to turn out a sort of Irie-kea line, built by prisoners?

Ikea furniture
Ikea furniture

The idea of high walls and barbed wire is to keep prisoners from escaping easily. So, too is the use of electronic surveillance or deterrents. Maybe, we can merge technology and culture. How about we revert to some ‘old-fashioned’ thinking and go for lower cost deterrents, like a deep, wide moat, stocked with alligators and piranhas? That may not be ideal, because some friends may just throw poison in the water and kill the predators and so lay the stage for escape attempts. But, you see where I’m going?

Let’s use this poisoned chalice from Britain to do something other than grumble about how we continue to be mistreated. Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.07.18 AM

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. :)

3 thoughts on “UK prison offer: Time for some out-of-the box thinking?”

  1. Irie-kea!! Oh, that’s a good one Dennis! 🙂 I love the furniture/manufacturing idea, though. I am sure I heard Peter Bunting mention the possibility of Tower Street being kept as a “prison museum.” Marcus Garvey was jailed there, briefly – a prophet not appreciated in his own land. Not to mention other more notorious characters such as “Jim Brown” etc.


  2. How about using the money to improve the Jamaican standard of living. Forget about a prison. This is really insulting. Take the twenty five million pounds from Cameron and consider it as a down payment on reparations.
    Carson c. Cadogan


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