Reparations, the Prison Industrial Complex and David Cameron’s whirlwind visit to Jamaica

Some thoughts on Cameron’s visit to Jamaica and the UK proposal to contribute towards building a new prison here.

The Gleaner, Oct 2, 2015, Las May
The Gleaner, Oct 2, 2015, Las May

In a superb blogpost titled “Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK” author Scott Long provides the context for the UK’s extraordinary offer to pay for a state-of-the-art prison to be located on Jamaican soil. He details the tortuous twists and turns of a global prison industrial complex founded, funded and fostered by countries such as the UK and the USA starting in Guantanamo Bay and reaching all the way to Somalia, Somaliland and the Seychelles. Utilizing elaborate ‘prisoner transfer agreements’ and the building of maximum security prisons in other countries that largely benefit the UK (or the exporting country in question) a global trade in prisoners is in swing and its routes and circuits are not far removed from those of the slave trade two centuries or so ago. As Long says:

The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Although the links between Cameron’s offer of £25m towards the building of a prison and similar experiments in Somalia and elsewhere haven’t been discussed much in the Jamaican media Long suggests that the Jamaican government was well aware of the geopolitics of the deal and cannily acted in its own interests. In fact a 2013 article in the Observer chronicles a Senate debate between the Jamaican government and Opposition on the subject. To return to Long however:

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to imagine that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

Long pinpoints the UK’s interest in the matter:

The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11.

As for the claim that the UK’s investment is somehow going to improve the antiquated, inhumane state of the country’s prison system Long is doubtful:

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

The rest of this long but informative post can be found here and is well worth reading in its entirety.

The Gleaner, Oct 3, 2015, Las May
The Gleaner, Oct 3, 2015, Las May

The overwhelming reaction to Cameron’s prison proposal in Jamaica has been one of outrage and skepticism. Tweeter @BigBlackBarry summed it up:

Export our qualified citizens who are forced to leave to build their country. Import criminals for integration in our failed state.

There is a widespread feeling of insult added to injury in Cameron’s refusal to countenance any discussion of reparative justice suggesting instead that Jamaicans join the British in looking and working towards the future.This is the very same impulse that led light-skinned governing elites in Jamaica to jettison Emancipation Day as a national holiday and focus exclusively on Independence Day for the first 3 decades of independence. ‘Let’s forget the past and move forward’ was the too frequently proffered advice of the ruling elites who feared that frequent references and memorialization of the slave past would render the population mutinous and ungovernable. Cameron’s exhortation that Jamaica should join the British in ‘moving on from the painful legacy of slavery’ therefore has unpleasant resonances for Jamaicans and should have been avoided.

We gave a nation… They give a prison.. That’s a sick reparation joke…tweeted @Occupy_Jamaica

Journalist Yolande Gyles-Levy was moved to start a blog expressing the rage she felt:

No sooner had he said the words “move on”, I became enraged. I was sitting at my desk in the office, listening to Mr. Cameron and I leapt up and stood before the television set glaring at him while muttering every single profanity I knew in both English and Spanish and I’m sure I probably made up a few new ones.
And then my anger grew to rage as I watched the sons and daughters of slaves who are now parliamentarians allow the descendant of a slave owner to get away with the comment. There was not one single visible note of objection. Not one.
My anger turned to unimaginable shame though when the President of the Senate, the visually impaired Floyd Morris genuflected into the perfect “house slave”. His vote of thanks after Mr. Cameron’s speech sounded something like this: Thank You Massa for coming to speak to us Niggers. We have never been so blessed. Thank You Massa! Thank You! Thank You!
As I write this blog piece on Friday, two days later, they, the sons and daughters of slaves, who now occupy the Parliament still haven’t objected.

As the above video shows most Jamaicans were unhappy with the UK’s prison proposal.

Local entertainers also rejected the idea, claiming that the money should be invested in education and development infrastructure. Patrick Gaynor of the duo Twin of Twins had this to say:

“Let’s say a man is born in Jamaica but leaves immediately to the UK, commits a crime at age 40 and gets deported to Jamaica. Where does he go after he serves his time?”

Wayne Chen, a businessman, politician and erstwhile poet, seemed to be one of the few seeing the prison proposal as a useful opportunity. His proposal is one worth considering:

The British government’s proposal to spend the equivalent of four billion Jamaican dollars to build us a new prison highlights important issues, raises troubling questions, and presents an opportunity.

First, it reminds us that Jamaica’s prisons are a terrible blight on our aspirations to being a ‘civilized society’, as they are dank, overcrowded barracoons; more universities of crime than centres of rehabilitation.

Second, the high numbers of our citizens in British and other foreign prisons are unacceptable, and symptomatic of local problems that need urgent fixing if we are not to become international pariahs.

The tone, timing, and content of the announcement displayed a level of insensitivity that has rightly outraged many of us, but we need to see past this.

I have no instant quarrel with the British for acting in their own self-interest by getting rid of foreigners who are a burden on their taxpayers, but wonder whether our own government is willing to accept a two-tiered prison system that will see one set of prisoners, ‘lucky’ enough to be convicted in a foreign jurisdiction, housed in a modern 21st century facility, and another set, convicted in their home country, living in a 19th century hellhole.

Since the British seem determined to spend the money, has our own government considered negotiating a compromise that would use these funds to help to modernize Jamaica’s entire prison system?

This coupled with the current commitment to stop locking up people for minor drug offenses would allow us to focus on incarcerating and rehabilitating violent offenders.

Where is our government on this?

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

7 thoughts on “Reparations, the Prison Industrial Complex and David Cameron’s whirlwind visit to Jamaica”

  1. Long can’t argue GOJ drove hard bargain, only to get UK to stump up less than half the building costs, and minimal running/maintenance costs, when UK couldn’t send the prisoners to Jamaica unilaterally (at least, in current conditions).

    Some have seen the general paucity of policy clarity by GOJ well exemplified in their not having prison renovations as a key pillar of social policy (where is it in Vision 2030?), rather than getting mixed up with some fuzzy quid pro quo scheme driven by another country’s needs.

  2. Yeah, agreed, it was only a hard bargain in the context of what other states have gotten out of the UK purse: Nigeria got maybe £3M from the UK for taking its prisoners, Seychelles around £9M. But £25M is still not enough to build or run a modern prison and the UK will always pretend to be skint.

    1. Thanks Scott, context is everything isn’t it? And double thanks for your extensive, richly detailed post on the prison trade, again the context provided was invaluable.

  3. It’s interesting that the idea of birthright citizenship is under attack here in Canada as well, though the argument is differently framed. Tangential to part of the subject under discussion here, as there is no notion of reparation involved; except that the notion that removal of citizenship can be used to control or remove a part of the population that is seen as troublesome is a common and worrying thread.

  4. Neo imperialism at its best. Haven’t the maddest of our rebellious ancestors bestowed upon us the ability to act with supreme clarity? We should all be stark raving mad too and reject this Trojan horse. Generations to come will honor us for it!

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