For many persons, the spectre of prison conjures up images of violence, deviant behaviour, and an unpleasant place where criminals are locked away to do penance for their crimes against society.
Amidst a seemingly hostile environment, the Correctional Services Department continues the day-to-day efforts of ensuring that there is redemption for those who find themselves behind bars, and that these men and women are better people when they return to society.
One of the major roles of the Department is, in fact, the rehabilitation of inmates and preparing them for full integration back into society, Commissioner of Corrections, Lieutenant Colonel Sean Prendergast, told JIS News.
“So, it’s not just to secure inmates and carry out the orders of the court. We use the time that they spend incarcerated to engage them in rehabilitation programmes and to better prepare them to be better citizens on the way out,” he explained.
While these programmes are conducted in all penal institutions, much of the emphasis is placed on inmates who are closer to release, and who are most likely to return to society. The programmes are conducted in this manner, as there is not enough capacity to deliver to every inmate in the system, Lt. Col. Prendergast noted.
In most institutions, educational classes are available, ranging from basic literacy to preparing inmates to sit CSEC level exams.
“We do this with a mix of trained teachers that we have on staff, and correctional officers who have exhibited the capacity and the ability. We also use inmates – so, if an inmate comes in who was a teacher in his previous life, then we use the skill that is available, and we try to get as many of our inmates through that as possible. So, separate from the educational progammes, we have trade training programmes as well,” the Commissioner said.
At the Tower Street Adult Correctional Facility, for example, there are welding, and tailoring programmes, as well as a vibrant music project. A documentary, ‘Redemption Song’, was recently filmed there by an overseas group.
“It shows the reality of prison life, and also the impact that the music programme has at Tower Street,” Lt. Col. Prendergast told JIS News.
‘Redemption Song’ is a gritty but touching chronicle of the lives and talents of a number of inmates who are participating in the European Union-funded Rehabilitation Programme at the Tower Street facility.
There are other rehabilitation programmes that may not be readily identified as rehabilitative. These include sports, and meaningful work programmes, which ensure that there is some structure to the life of the inmates.
“They get up at a certain time, have a meal, shower, and go off to work,” he said, adding that many inmates come with no previous structure to their lives.
The inmates also benefit from Information Technology (IT) classes, keeping them abreast of some of the developments in technology, which will boost their marketability for employment on the outside. There is also a radio station operating out of several of the institutions, which transmits in the local area of the prison, and is streamed live on the Internet.
Additionally, there are behavioural modification programmes, as well as a vibrant chaplaincy unit that takes care of the religious counselling needs of the inmates.
Lt. Col. Prendergast said each year, the Department seeks to improve the capacity inside the institutions in order to ensure that a greater number of inmates benefit from these programmes at any given time.
“We try to make the best use of the space and the resources that we have, to make an impact,” he said.
Although these programmes are run in all the institutions, some do not carry all of them. The larger facilities, such as Tower Street and St. Catherine, have more active programmes, given that they house some 70 per cent of the prison population.
“So, there are many things that keep the inmates active and occupied, in an attempt to make them better citizens once they get back outside –certainly better than the ones that came to us in the beginning,” the Commissioner said.
Lt. Col. Prendergast noted that the vast majority of inmates are very receptive to the courses, but there are some who resist participating, as there is a culture of resistance against “going to school.”
“So, you will have individuals who are illiterate and reluctant to attend classes, and it is for us to make it interesting and attractive enough to get them in. Thankfully the numbers willing to attend the classes are increasing,” the Commissioner said.
The Department collaborates with the HEART Trust/NTA and the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning, among other entities, to administer the various tests associated with the programmes.
“We have many successes. We had some juveniles who came in as troubled youngsters, went through the programmes, got some CSEC subjects, and we were able to get them into teachers’ colleges. So, they have an opportunity now to turn their lives around. You would probably find them now in a school, as a teacher and not know that they passed through the juvenile justice system,” he told JIS News.
A major objective of the Department now is to get HEART Trust/NTA certification for these programmes. So far, correctional staff members have been trained as certification level instructors, and are establishing courses, which will ensure that inmates leave the system with certificates in hand.
“Prior to this, they were just leaving with the training, almost like apprentice level skills. But with this new programme coming in, they will have certification at a particular level, that they can then use on the outside,” he said.
Lt. Col. Prendergast acknowledged that the road to rehabilitation is not an easy one for the inmates, as more social support is needed. The stigma of being a convict continues to be a major issue for them on the outside.
“Many of our inmates, once they are released, have a very difficult time getting jobs. Even the law abiding citizen, they have problems getting jobs too, but it is particularly difficult for ex-inmates, and if that doesn’t change, it will simply push them back into the cycle of crime. That is why many of our rehabilitation programmes are focused on trade training, so that they can be employed when they get on the outside, in many fields,” he outlined.
He said that while there is not enough data to make the link between rehabilitation and recidivism, the programmes have definitely had a positive impact on the level of violence inside the institutions.
The current recidivism rate is approximately 27 per cent. These are individuals who are released, but re-offend and are returned to the correctional system.
“Over time, we will be able to see if that is decreasing and what created the reduction or increase…there are a multitude of factors that would have to be looked into,” Lt. Col. Prendergast said.
On average, there are 4,500 inmates and wards in custody at any given time.
“The interesting fact is that over the last five or six years, we have been releasing about 2,000 inmates and admitting about 2,000 annually. Our population has remained more or less constant over the last five or six years,” he informed.
Lt. Col. Prendergast acknowledged the challenge of overcrowding, pointing out for example that the Tower Street facility was built to accommodate 850 inmates, but routinely there is in excess of 1,600 inmates there. A similar situation exists at the St. Catherine facility.
“The staff has to be very creative. As you can imagine, you have inmates that you cannot put in a cell with somebody else. It’s a testimony to the professionalism of the staff, that we don’t have more problems in the institutions,” he explained.
Lt. Col. Prendergast said the Department continues to make every effort to employ population reduction strategies, including the reclassification of inmates, from maximum security facilities to more medium security facilities, to ease some of the pressure off the major institutions. Some inmates are also engaged in programmes to facilitate their early release.
A pre-release hostel arrangement is also in place to help remove inmates from the overcrowded situation, and facilitate a smoother transition back to civil life.
Here too, they again have a strict regime of work during the day, to ensure structure. “It’s been working so far. One hostel is functioning right now, with seven inmates. We are hoping to increase the use of the hostel,” he said.
Lt. Col. Prendergast is encouraging corporate entities and civic groups to assist the correctional system, as the Department’s budget continues to be limited.
“If they have the capacity to assist us in strengthening our rehabilitation programmes, I would encourage them to do so,” the Commissioner urged.
By Alphea Saunders, JIS Reporter