JIS News

“Not my Armadale,” were the first thoughts of Cassandra, a former ward of the facility, when she heard the news of the protests and subsequent fiery deaths of seven teenagers at the centre in May.
For her, the Armadale Juvenile Centre, located in St Ann, is not just the place she spent two years of her life, Armadale is hers. “I own it,” she says. After all, the centre is where she turned her life around and started on the path to realising her dreams of becoming a teacher.
At age 25, Cassandra, who holds a diploma from studying social studies and physical education at the Mico University College, is just two semesters away from obtaining her bachelor’s degree in school management and leadership, from the same college. Although it has been seven years since she left the facility, Armadale is far from behind her.
Cassandra, who is from Portmore in St Catherine, remembers her years as a troubled teen who was considered “out of control”. She explains that she became an unruly teen as a result of a lack of proper parental guidance. “I grew up with my parents, but they were young parents, and because of the age factor, I had to move on to an extended family and I guess that’s where I got a downturn,” she tells JIS News.
In 2000, the 16 year-old Ardenne High student was hauled before the courts, which deemed it best to place her at Armadale, based on her level of disobedience, her uncontrollable behaviour and the fact that she had committed a misdemeanor. For her, the first few weeks at Armadale were difficult ones.
“I cried from Kingston straight to St Ann. For two weeks I was out of it. I didn’t know where in the world I was,” she says. The restrictions of living in the minimum security facility was a new experience for her, but soon after she got into the routine and started to realise that there were many benefits on which she could capitalise.
She says the then routine at Armadale involved meals, chores, recreational periods, rest periods and classes. “You have a timetable just like regular school. When at home, you would wake up and go to school, (in the same way) there is a timetable there and you are sent to different classes during the course of the day,” she notes.
“We had summer camps where therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists would come in and keep workshops with us. We have sports day just like any ordinary school, where you are placed in houses, you compete, you run, you jump, you do your cheerleading. So, there are programmes there just like in the ordinary society, so you don’t really miss anything,” Cassandra says. She notes that where students displayed exemplary behaviour, they were often allowed to attend expositions and other functions which could help in their development.
It was during her stay at Armadale that she got a chance to reflect on her life and decided to turn it around. “When you leave, what’s going to become of you?” were among the questions she asked herself. “There’s a life outside of Armadale and that must be your light. What is it that you want to be when you leave Armadale?”
Armadale was where she got a second shot at her education. She says after completing the curriculum at Armadale, she was allowed to sit the Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certificate (CSEC) at Aabuthnott Gallimore High School in the parish. The wards at the facility also received vocational training at the school and Cassandra reveals that she has National Council on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (NCTVET) certification in cosmetology.
Cassandra is not the only Armadale success story. She still has friends from the centre and she says many are making a valuable contribution to society. “You have many who own their own businesses; they are working in reputable jobs. They fit quite well into society. If we don’t tell you we’ve been to Armadale, you won’t know. And what makes it so good is you don’t have a criminal record, so you are not prevented from doing just about anything,” she tells JIS News.
Today, she remembers Armadale fondly. “The girls in my time, trust me, they were fun to be around,” she says, adding that the then Superintendent “believed in us. She guided us, she disciplined us and showed us tough love.”
“No matter how bad an image they paint of it, there are things you can sit with your friends and say: ‘Remember when we were at Armadale we used to do this, we used to do that’, and you laugh about it,” she notes.
In recent times, there have been questions of whether girls are being abused at the Armadale facility, and Cassandra is very disheartened by comments that discipline at the facility is unusually harsh.
“People just sit and come up with these stories. There is no evidence to their story,” she declares. “They have ways to discipline you rather than to hit you,” she adds.
She shares that girls would sometimes not be allowed visits by their families if they behaved badly, or they would sometimes not be allowed to watch television or enjoy other recreational activities. In addition, the wards are sometimes given extra chores as a means of punishment.
While she enjoys her memories of Armadale, Cassandra is not satisfied just reminiscing – she is ready to make her contribution and give back to the institution that means so much to her. Already, she has put forward a proposal to the Acting Commissioner of Corrections, June Spence-Jarrett, for using physical education as a rehabilitation tool.
“Physical education, most people will view it as playing… it goes beyond that. It encompasses stuff like substance abuse, how to deal with stress, adapting to rules and regulations. Even (in) the mere playing of a netball game, there is a level of discipline that is involved,” she says.
She points out that she is a regular visitor to the facility, and that she usually tries to engage the girls there. However, she wants to be more integrally involved with the centre. “I want to be there, so they can see it is possible. Giving them the theory, sometimes they’ll say ‘OK then, this could be a made-up story’. But for them to see you in action and to relate to you and you help them along the way, will make a lot of difference to them,” Cassandra tells JIS News.
She also has plans to form an Armadale Alumni Association. Among the activities she would like to see this association take part in are weekend or summer camps, where counselling is offered to the girls regarding their future.
The former Armadale ward also supports a recommendation contained in the Keating Report on Children’s Homes in Jamaica, which suggests the separation of criminally charged children from others in state facilities.
“Each individual goes to these facilities for different reasons. While we would want to pay attention to each and everyone, we can’t do that because of resources, whether human resource or capital resource. So a better way to do it is to group them,” she suggests.
Turning to the fire at Armadale, which led to a relocation to Diamond Crest Villa in Manchester, an obviously saddened Cassandra describes it as a “very sad, sad story.”
Prime Minister the Hon. Bruce Golding has ordered a Commission of Enquiry into the fire and that enquiry began on June 30. The team is led by retired President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Paul Harrison.
“Each time it is brought to my mind I think of myself. Seven years ago I could have been one of those girls that perished. So I will be paying attention, very close attention too,” she says.
Cassandra is determined to make her mark among girls going through the experience she has been through, and is currently awaiting word from the Department of Correctional Services on whether her proposals will be taken up.
“I want to be a very integral part in the development of Armadale. I have a passion for it. I don’t want success for me alone. I want to share success and I want to be a part of their success,” she declares. “I had this passion from I walked out of Armadale and I said I was not going to throw stones behind me,” Cassandra tells JIS News.

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