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?

Britain’s Black Debt: The Logic of Reparation

An account of the launch of Hilary Beckles’s book, Britain’s Black Debt, in Jamaica

The launch of the book Britain’s Black Debt by historian Hilary Beckles, Principal of the Cave Hill Campus on May 2 was as solemn and grand an event as the weight of reparations from Britain for the crime of slavery demanded. The auditorium of the New Medical Sciences Building on the Mona Campus of the University was full, with ushers politely showing attendees to their seats. Here and there you could see clumps of Rastafarians equipped with small drums and instruments which they shook and beat whenever a speaker said something they approved of.

Kellie Magnus @kelliemagnus
Beckles: 300 years of salt pork has led to chronic illnesses. Rasta man shouts out: fire bun!

@kelliemagnus I find huge flags waved at high speeds right by the ear more dramatic #strategiestosurvive3hourbooklaunch

Kellie Magnus @kelliemagnus
Gonsalves calls for intl conference on reparations. Offers St Vincent and the Grenadines as host #britainsblackdebt

anniepaul @anniepaul
Sigh RT @kelliemagnus: After 67 minutes Gonsalves says, “I turn now to part two of the book.” #britainsblackdebt

RT @keimiller: Gonzales has moved on to 2nd topic: slavery. Hope its not as long as Roots.

@touchofallright to @BigBlackBarry

dude–you shld be at this launch for “britain’s black debt: reparations for caribbean slavery and native genocide”

BigBlackBarry @BigBlackBarry
@touchofallright nobody doan invite me to these jiggy functions. How it can name black an Barry nat dere?

The flippancy of the tweets I’ve chosen to quote above are no reflection on the subject of the book itself but more the outcome of a captive audience equipped with social media and able to chafe publicly at the undue length of the ceremonies. Lord Anthony Gifford who has researched the subject of reparations extensively and campaigned for it, was short and incisive but by the time the guest speaker, the Honorable Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, finished his expansive official speech many of us had to leave without hearing the author of the book respond. This was a pity because I had come mainly to hear Beckles on a subject that I’ve thought and written about myself.


In fact the event reminded me that one of the earliest columns I wrote for the Sunday Herald (March 10, 1996) was titled The Logic of Reparation. I remember being stunned at the time when Rupert Lewis congratulated me on being the first columnist to tackle this troublesome issue in the mainstream media (Jamaica’s come a long way since the mid-nineties). My own interest in Reparations was sparked by my conversations with a family friend, Ras Makonnen, aka George Nelson, a feisty Rastafarian public figure who had he not succumbed to cancer would probably have been Mayor of Portmore today. Big George as he was known, founded the Committee on Reparations in Jamaica in 1991 and had attended the First Pan-African Conference on Reparations held in Abuja, Nigeria, April 27-29, 1993, out of which came the Abuja Proclamation, part of which i quote below.

…Fully persuaded that the damage sustained by the African peoples is not a “thing of the past’ but is Painfully manifest in the damaged lives of contemporary Africans from Harlem to Harare, in the damaged economies of the Black World from Guinea to Guyana, from Somalia to Surinam.
Respectfully aware of historic precedents in reparations, ranging from German Payment of restitution to the Jews for the enormous tragedy of the Nazi Holocaust to the question of compensating Japanese-Americans for injustice of internment by Roosevelt Administration in the United States during the World War II.
Cognizant of the fact that compensation for injustice need not necessarily be paid only in capital but could include service to the victims or other forms of restitution and readjustment of the relationship agreeable to both parties.
Emphatically convinced that what matters is not the guilt but the responsibility of those states and nations whose economic evolution once depended on slave labor and colonialism, and whose forebears participated either in selling and buying Africans, or in owning them, or in colonizing  them…
Well, I missed what Professor Beckles had to say on the occasion of the launch but at least i can buy the book and read it. It was only the other day that a conversation on Facebook about Reparations inevitably led to the argument by a ‘Jamaica white’ that s/he was a mixture of both black and white. So which part was going to pay which part? This kind of trivialization of reparative justice is quite common but the fact is that reparations need not be thought of as individual payouts such as the former slave-owning planters received, but as investments in public goods, like education, health and infrastructure. This would go a long way toward repairing the historical injustice Britain benefited from and inflicted on the Caribbean islands it once controlled.
English historians have recently uncovered the links between prominent British public figures and their slave-owning antecedents. From David Cameron, the Prime Minister, to highly regarded writers such as George Orwell and Graham Greene, the list is a long one. According to Nick Draper from University College London, who along with historian Catherine Hall and others studied the compensation papers “… as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy.”
%d bloggers like this: