Why Are We Still Locking Up Our Children?

It’s a New Year, but that doesn’t mean we have put aside those difficult issues that we faced in 2012, and then failed to tackle. And this one is certainly unresolved.

Not long before Christmas (on December 10), the human rights lobby group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) hosted one of its Public Forums on “Accountability and Governance for Children in the Justice System” at Kingston‘s Knutsford Court Hotel. The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded the event.

The room was full, and the atmosphere was just a little prickly. For indeed, this was an issue that had been burning a hole in the consciences of many Jamaicans, at home and abroad. A group of young activists sitting in the middle of the room was not going to let some statements go unchallenged; there were murmurings and sotto voce comments at times.

And JFJ has been doing some branding, with funding from the Federal Republic of Germany. The new human rights logo is snappy and attractive. I have a little button; there are also other information items that JFJ will distribute during a series of forty community workshops and thirty presentations on human rights to high school students. JFJ also plans to reach six hundred new police recruits annually with its messages. Let’s face it: many Jamaicans still don’t understand the meaning and importance of human rights. Or that human rights are universal. For all. For all Jamaicans, even!

Earlier that day, JFJ had launched a very important campaign, under the theme “Lift Up, Don’t Lock Up Our Children.” In this effort, it is collaborating with eight other civil society advocacy groups to pressure the government to move decisively on the issue of children in State care. Yes, after years of talking about it, we are still locking up children in adult prisons and (worse still) in police lock-ups. And if you have ever seen inside a police lock-up – the conditions are simply horrible, whether you are an adult or a child. Just use your imagination.

Commissioner of Corrections Lt. Col. Sean Prendergast made the first presentation at the forum. He is the man in charge of the prisons. He gave us some cold, hard facts. As of December 10, 2012 there were approximately 4,500 prison inmates. There were 354 juveniles (under the age of eighteen) in custody for various offenses or awaiting trial, 257 of them males. 77 of these juveniles are deemed “uncontrollable.” (Stick a pin for a moment…) In other words, they have not committed any crime.

Commissioner of Corrections Lt. Col. Sean Prendergast (Photo: Jamaica Observer)
Commissioner of Corrections Lt. Col. Sean Prendergast (Photo: Jamaica Observer)

Now, I have a problem with that word, personally. What does “uncontrollable” mean? It means (to me) that the child must have serious psychological challenges; he or she is in need of medical care perhaps; counseling certainly. This is just my layperson’s view, you understand. I am not an expert on child psychology. But it seems to me that if a child is behaving in a certain way, they must need help, professional help. It is very likely that the child has experienced some kind of abuse in his/her short life; he/she may have witnessed violence and/or abuse on a regular basis, at home or in the community, bullying at school, and so on.

And what do we do with these “uncontrollable” children? We beat them, tell them they are “bad,” reduce their self-esteem to zero. Then, when we can’t manage them at all any more, we have them locked up. This is what happened to Vanessa Wint, who, it is reported, was molested by a neighbor at age thirteen (he threatened to kill her parents if she told on him) and ran away from home several times. She was held by the police; deemed uncontrollable by a Family Court; ordered to be put in “State care” for three years; locked up at the Armadale Correctional Centre for girls in St. Ann; survived the fire which killed seven girls there; returned to her parents at age sixteen; ran away again; and was remanded at the Fort Augusta maximum security prison for women (adults). She was then transferred to the Horizon Adult Remand Centre in Kingston – again, a maximum security prison for adults. There, on the night of Thursday, November 22, 2012, Vanessa was found in her cell, with a sheet around her neck – an apparent suicide. The autopsy results are not out yet, but Vanessa was finally buried recently. According to her relatives, no government representative attended her funeral.

The burnt-out dormitory after the fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre for girls in St. Ann in 2009. The girls were "on lock-down" and could not escape. (Photo: Gleaner)
The burnt-out dormitory after the fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre for girls in St. Ann in 2009. The girls were “on lock-down” and could not escape. (Photo: Gleaner)
Vanessa Wint died in an adult remand prison at age sixteen, on November 22, 2012.
Vanessa Wint died in an adult remand prison at age sixteen, on November 22, 2012.

Lt. Col. Prendergast informed us at the forum that there are six juvenile facilities housing children in Jamaica – plus two adult correctional centers (Fort Augusta and Horizon). Both, he told us, are ‘gazetted’ to hold juveniles (I am not sure what this means). At Horizon, adults and children are completely separated; at Fort Augusta, women and girls do “mix in the corridors.”  He told us candidly, however, that most prisons in Jamaica are “extremely old” and in that sense, they are “not built with human rights in mind.” In other words, most prisons are Dickensian in construction and layout, and, to a large extent, the culture within hasn’t changed much either. Lt. Col. Prendergast said these buildings can’t be retrofitted, and that he wants to lobby for the building of new prisons (but he realizes, as we do, that we are desperately in need of new schools, new hospitals, too). New prisons may not be high on the government’s agenda.

The entrance to Fort Augusta women's prison near Portmore, St. Catherine, which was built by the British in the 1740s as a sea defense.
The entrance to Fort Augusta women’s prison near Portmore, St. Catherine, which was built by the British in the 1740s as a sea defense.

In short, the Commissioner appeared well aware of the failings of the system, and was in no way making excuses for it. He recognizes that the children have “psychological issues,” but noted that “we don’t have adequate capacity” to deal with troubled teens in conflict with the law – or those 77 “uncontrollable” incarcerated children, either.

Capacity = resources. Resources = money. It is a familiar story (but odd that we always seem to find the resources for new Toyota Prados, Audis and the like).

Human rights activists Carla Gullotta is Executive Director of a group called Stand Up for Jamaica, which works in the area of prison rehabilitation. She spoke passionately, swiftly and sharply; her presentation was at times spine-chilling.

“I am sick and tired of hearing ‘the children are our future,'”  Ms. Gullotta declared. I am tired of hearing that, too. We pretend to love our children, and smother them with platitudes. But why, then, I ask, do we treat our young people as if they are aliens from Planet Zog?

Ms. Gullotta, who visits prisons on a regular basis with JFJ representatives and others, notes that in fact, conditions at the scary-sounding Fort Augusta prison are better than in some state-run children’s homes. One of these homes, she said, has a “cage” where the most unruly children are kept. The staff are little more than “watchmen and watch women” – not, Ms. Gullotta suggested, caregivers in any sense of the word. The Child Development Agency (CDA), which is responsible for these homes, is a “total failure,” she asserted. Note: At one time, the CDA was under the Ministry of Health; it now falls under the purview of the glamorous Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna. Is this the Ministry responsible for adhering to the Child Care and Protection Act of 2004? I am not clear. Which ministry is responsible for what, these days?

Ms. Carla Gullotta of Stand Up for Jamaica.
Ms. Carla Gullotta of Stand Up for Jamaica.

It is remarkable how many government offices there are that are responsible for children. There is also the Office of the Children’s Advocate, who is Ms. Diahann Gordon Harrison. This office was only established in 2006 and according to its website it is “mandated to enforce and protect the rights and best interest of children.”  (At the moment, however, I can’t get beyond the home page; can you? When I click nothing happens). Ms. Gordon Harrison described, at length and in detail, all the legal work that her office was doing and would like to see done on behalf of Jamaica’s children. There is still the need for legislative change, she is sure. She is of the “firm view” that preliminary enquiries, which slow down the courts considerably and prolong painful cases involving children, should be abolished. I do agree with her. She was glad that legislators passed the Evidence Act (Special Measures) Act last November; this provides for the use of video evidence in court, avoiding the need for children to attend court (I have seen how traumatic this is for myself, as a juror in a child abuse case some years ago). It has not yet come into force as I don’t believe the regulations have been published.

Once again, it soon became apparent that the Office of the Children’s Advocate operates on a shoestring. It has only three attorneys across the island. They cannot be in several places at once. The Office is supposed to watch court proceedings to ensure that the rights of children are protected. It can (and does) institute civil proceedings on behalf of children, and has 24 matters in court now, challenging government entities; and it provides legal representation for children. But they have reached out to the private bar for help. The Children’s Advocate would like to have “children’s attorneys” on call, outside Kingston. It is very hard for them to reach all corners of the island.

Ms. Gordon Harrison has started doing unannounced visits to children’s homes, to see what is going on. She would like to see a cadre of trained inspectors for the homes (shouldn’t this be the CDA’s responsibility? Just asking…) She knows that institutionalization is not the solution” for children in conflict with the law or with behavioral problems. She believes that a “therapeutic, holistic approach is an urgent priority.” Yes, Ms. Gordon Harrison, we heartily agree. But…

Once again – something which I noted while listening to the Children’s Advocate – I got the distinct impression that there was a severe lack of resources.

No comment needed.
No comment needed.

After all this – which left me and others with a feeling of déjà vu and, well, frustration – Ms. Sheila Mitchell, Chief Probation Officer in the County of Santa Clara, California, came to tell us about her program. As one of Silicon Valley’s 100 Women of Influence (yes, Santa Clara is Silicon Valley) and a former high-powered executive with AT&T, she sounded a little daunting at first. But she is anything but. According to a press release when she was appointed in 2004, Ms. Mitchell observes, “My philosophy is that we should treat the children in our custody as though they were our own and provide them with the services and care they deserve.”  In other words, in loco parentis. I will leave you, dear reader, to consider how far Jamaica has moved away from that philosophy (if we ever subscribed to it).

Chief Probation Officer at Santa Clara County Sheila Mitchell. Not as daunting as she sounds, she left a top level job in the private sector to study conflict resolution.
Chief Probation Officer at Santa Clara County Sheila Mitchell. Not as daunting as she sounds, she left a top level job in the private sector to study conflict resolution.

There are 2,500 children in conflict with the law in Santa Clara County. Yes, it’s not all technology riches, it seems. Like everywhere else, it has its social problems and it has its troubled kids. But having said that, Ms. Mitchell notes, “only a handful” of its juvenile offenders are in prisons. 98 per cent are with families – it costs less. We must work with the families, Ms. Mitchell stresses; a great deal of work is done in prevention – and in restorative justice, too – in a “continuum of services.”  But a lot of faith and trust is placed in families, who are as Ms. Mitchell says, “the experts…The family is vital to the treatment process” with young offenders.

Ms. Mitchell showed us photos of the old design of a juvenile facility in Santa Clara, when she first saw it some years ago. There were bleak rows of iron beds; polished linoleum floors; one could almost smell that institutional smell of bleach and stale food. Now, in the same place, there is the Enhanced Ranch Program, which she instituted. Now, before I go further, I should point out that in Jamaica, quite a bit of emphasis is placed on how dangerous many of our juveniles are (as if they don’t have dangerous individuals anywhere else). I just saw the Minister of National Security on television (with the usual smile on his face) talking about this. So, the emphasis is always on security. Lock ’em up!  Well, Ms. Mitchell’s program also works with dangerous kids, too. These are “gang-bangers” with a history of violence. 

So what’s the difference? In the Enhanced Ranch Program, Ms. Mitchell makes members of opposing gangs sit together round a table, instead of trying to quell inter-gang conflicts in a prison setting. The inmates (I doubt they use that word) realize they are all, actually, the same kids with the same problems. The barriers fall down. What else happens with these kids? They are treated with respect. Yes, respect (a word so popular in Jamaica and yet so often not practiced). Because of that, they start behaving better. None of the “Shut up, sit down, behave yourself, stop that” etc Victorian-type “discipline.” And how Jamaicans love that word, too!

But these juvenile offenders (not “uncontrollable,” these are children who have all committed actual crimes, many of them serious) don’t have an easy time. They have to take responsibility for their lives. There is structure and order in the program and there are rules of behavior – they have to earn respect as well as give it. The motto is “safety first” – not quite the same as a security clampdown, although of course the place is secure. Their families and their communities also have to shoulder the responsibility of rehabilitation.

Ms. Mitchell asserts that she is not being “soft on crime.” But she has moved from the autocratic, rules-oriented, regimented world of the old juvenile facility. The young people are steered back towards living productive lives. They learn skills – welding, computer skills, engineering – that will help them to obtain jobs when they leave. They earn an income from this – but the money is paid to make restitution for their crimes. And the focus is on changing the mindset of the offenders – not just changing their behavior.

Ms. Mitchell is also a firm believer in staff training. She vets the staff closely herself – administrators must be hands-on, she asserts – and they must believe in the philosophy of the Ranch. There are other similar programs elsewhere – in Missouri, for example, where they have only a 7 per cent recidivism rate now. The Santa Clara facility was modeled on Missouri. There are two members of staff to every twelve youngsters. The once stark environment is more of a “home-like” setting, with armchairs, sofas, modular units.

The results have been remarkable. Violations of probation and re-arrests have dropped dramatically. There have been almost no escapees – they were always trying to get out of the old ranch. And there have been far fewer “incidents” in the facility.

Ms. Mitchell is, clearly, a reform-minded woman, a clear-headed administrator. She emphasizes that such a system is actually more cost-effective in the long term than the former punitive system, which institutionalizes children, “re-traumatizes” them and creates repeat offenders and more anti-social individuals for the future. It makes good sense. Yes, we can say we have no resources, now; but what will the consequences be down the road if we continue with our current mindset? And are there no Jamaicans who think as Ms. Mitchell does – who feel that we cannot destroy our vulnerable youth in the way that we are doing? I know there are. Those Jamaicans need to have the courage of their convictions, and make a change.

Lisa Hanna
Our beautiful Minister responsible for youth, Ms. Lisa Hanna, M.P. Did she issue a statement of condolence or any comment on the death of a teenage girl in the care of the State? Could she show more compassion and caring through her actions?

It’s not always just a question of resources – of the money to buy the sofas, for example. It is about vision, political will. And seriously – is the welfare of children in the care of the state really a priority for this administration (was it for previous administrations)? And can we start thinking about what the consequences of our actions will be in the future, if we continue doing the same thing over and over? Transferring children from one adult penal institution to another, like chattels? Is Jamaica complying with the international conventions that it has signed? Where do we go from here – are we just muddling along, or is there still a possibility for a radical re-think? Why has the Minister of Youth not even responded to a speedy, genuine and thoughtful offer from the Mustard Seed Communities to help care for the girls in State care, after Vanessa’s alleged suicide?

Children are not aliens. They are young human beings. We were all children once. Remember, Minister Hanna?

I leave you, dear readers, with these thoughts and questions. Please, in 2013, let’s do better for our children. Somehow.

P.S. On the Armadale fire, which took place nearly four years ago, the Children’s Advocate has not yet been able to obtain compensation or justice for the families of the seven girls who perished or for those who were injured. Still working on it.

Please take a read of several previous blog posts I have written on this topic in the past year. And please support organizations like Jamaicans for Justice and the youthful Help JA Children, who are trying to make real change in our society.

Jamaica's Children's Advocate, Diahann Gordon Harrison.
Jamaica’s Children’s Advocate, Diahann Gordon Harrison.
Lift Up, Don't Lock Up Our Children!
Lift Up, Don’t Lock Up Our Children!
This is the new  universal human rights logo, which is being incorporated into many other logos around the world - including JFJ's.
This is the new universal human rights logo, which is being incorporated into many other logos around the world – including JFJ’s.
Promotional items for JFJ's Human Rights Awareness Campaign. They can go a long way in getting the message out... (Photo: German Embassy Jamaica)
Promotional items for JFJ’s Human Rights Awareness Campaign. They can go a long way in getting the message out… (Photo: German Embassy Jamaica)

Related articles:

http://www.jamaicansforjustice.org/nmcms.php?snippets=news&p=news_details&id=3856 (JFJ Press Release: Honorable Ministers Hanna and Bunting, who is responsible for the death of a child at Horizon Adult Remand Centre?

https://www.facebook.com/helpJAchildren (Help JA Children Facebook page)

http://www.televisionjamaica.com/Programmes/PrimeTimeNews.aspx/Videos/22775 (TVJ report on launch of “Lift Up Don’t Lock Up” advocacy campaign, December 10, 2012)

http://rjrnewsonline.com/local/jfj-to-pursue-legal-action-against-the-government (JFJ to pursue legal action against the government: RJR)

https://www.facebook.com/notes/help-ja-children/vanessa-wint-needs-our-help/388636417883750 (Vanessa Wint needs our help: Help JA Children/Facebook Note)

http://jamaica-star.com/thestar/20110713/news/news2.html (Mother says raped child suffering in lock-up: Jamaica Star, July 13, 2011)

http://www.moj.gov.jm/node/731 (Ministry of Justice: Child Care and Protection Act, 2004 – download)

http://www.ocajamaica.gov.jm (Office of the Chldren’s Advocate website)

http://www.unicef.org/jamaica/promoting_child_rights_2990.htm (Jamaica gets first Children’s Advocate: UNICEF Jamaica)

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100224/lead/lead91.html (Assessing Armadale: Gleaner, February 24, 2010)

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/-We-are-still-waiting-_13346061 (“We are still waiting”: Observer)

http://www.unicef.org/jamaica/children.html (UNICEF Jamaica: The Children – Overview)

http://www.library.ca.gov/crb/09/SantaClara.pdf (Evaluation of the Enhanced Ranch Program, Santa Clara County)

http://www.sccgov.org/sites/opa/nr/Pages/County-of-Santa-Clara-Strategic-Investment-in-Innovative-Juvenile-Support-Paying-Off.aspx (County of Santa Clara Strategic Investment in Innovative Juvenile Support Paying Off:

http://www.kingston.diplo.de/Vertretung/kingston/en/06/Embassy_20Events/HR-Signing_20Ceremony.html (Human Rights Awareness Campaign: Germany Embassy Jamaica)

http://www.humanrightslogo.net (The Universal Logo for Human Rights: How can you use it in your country or for your organization?)

14 thoughts on “Why Are We Still Locking Up Our Children?

    1. Thank you so much! I am a huge fan of UNICEF. I chair an organization in Jamaica that just received a bus from UNICEF Jamaica! We are SO incredibly grateful to them. They are really good and dedicated people, including the local staff too. Doing good work everywhere…


    1. I know. It’s unbelievable. The dialogue on this subject has been going on literally for years. But nothing ever happens. All the human rights groups (and even the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report) have been pointing to it, year in and year out. I just hope at least some steps are taken towards rectifying the situation this year…


  1. Here in the USA, we use the term ‘incorrigible’ to describe such children – perhaps a more fitting term than ‘uncontrollable’? Although several years old, and excellent paper exists discussing the various causes of incorrigibility which can be downloaded at http://www.ojjdp.gov/dso/Ungovernable%20Youth%20Literature%20Review.pdf

    After some thirty years in British and US law enforcement, a year ago I transitioned into a supervisory position at a residential care facility for teenagers with drug and alcohol addictions, and who for the most part are ‘incorrigible’ most of the time.

    These teenagers have been removed from Juvenile Halls (childrens’ jails) and come to our facility usually for six to nine months. In addition to their treatment for substance abuse, they live in residential houses, six children, each housed two to a bedroom, and with two house-staff covering the week.

    The vast majority of the kids are not inherently bad kids. Many are diagnosed with medical conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD). These are, with training, identifiable medical disorders which result in uncontrolled behavioural abnormalities and which differentiate them from ‘bad kids needing discipline’. Not only will the child of a mother who consumed alcohol during pregnancy display behavioural issues, that traditional discipline may actually worsen, they actually manifest physical traits that will be an obvious indicator of the disorder. An helpful example of an aid to basic diagnosis can be found at http://www.nofas.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/identification.pdf

    It goes without saying that children in the care and custody of the government MUST be adequately housed, and protected from abuse. But, let us not assume that incorrigible behaviour is the result of bad parenting, social status, or other similar excuses, and recognise that many have recognisable and treatable medical conditions.

    I am looking forward to making Jamaica my home later this year, and will be very pleased to see this issue receive the priority it demands. It seems to have taken a tragedy to elicit ‘official’ recognition of the problem – now it it time for a rapid, interim solution ahead of a long term program to help our children.


    1. Dear Drew: Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments from your extensive experience in the field. Incorrigible? That’s an interesting word. But doesn’t that mean “cannot be corrected”? Or, as one politician said of his constituents one day, “irredeemable.” Thanks very much for that link, too. I hope readers will look at it, and I will. I am quite sure many of these children do need medical assistance and counseling. My concern is that there is still not an official recognition of the problem, really. But a short-term solution is needed. Good luck with your move to Jamaica and do keep in touch! Thanks again for the great comments.


  2. Tragic. As always thanks for the update. But at this forum, Ms Pretty Minister of the children was not there or anyone from her office ? Why did no one nail it into that Predengrast guy with the ‘uncontrollable’ children situation ? Do they have a Physcologist visit the place to give them counselling? Jamaica should be focusing on crime and the REAL criminals on hand versus locking up our children. Does Ms. hanna serve any purpose at all other than always looking pretty for her photo shoots ?


    1. No, Ms. Pretty Minister was of course not there. She had other things to do, no doubt. Like choose her next outfit? What really saddens me is she seems so cool and distant. She could not even issue a condolence re: Vanessa Wint’s death, or attend her funeral. No one from her Ministry attended the funeral, which is even worse, to me. I don’t understand it, actually. I suspect she is just out of her depth. She is certainly coming in for heavy criticism…


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