When something like the Armadale fire happens, where seven young women were burned to death, there is always the anxiety that a similar incident could happen again in the future. The issue is always whether the organisation responsible has learned from the terrible experience and put in place everything that they possibly can to stop it happening again. In this case this was the State, in whose care and protection the girls – aged between fifteen and seventeen – found themselves at Armadale.
The Armadale fire, which took place exactly twelve years ago, was not so much a disaster as a series of agonizing failures, actions, and decisions that led to the disaster. One thing led to another. This evening there was an online gathering to remember those who perished with human rights activist Alexis Goffe, who shared his thoughts here on the tenth anniversary of the fire. Here is the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network’s (JYAN) take on the matter. Please click on the highlighted links for more background information.
12 Years after the Armadale fire — has the Government learned their lesson?
On Friday, May 22, 2009, the unspeakable happened. Seven (7) young women, who were in the care of the state, perished in a fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre. Today, on the 12th anniversary of that fateful blaze, The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) would like to pay respects to those whose lives were lost and affected by the Armadale tragedy. We also want to take this opportunity to reflect on the systemic and operational issues that led to the fire and the state of State correctional care today.
The 2010 Enquiry into the cause of the fire revealed various inadequacies in the operations at Armadale and the apparent unfitness of the staff to oversee children in correctional State care. It was found that the young ladies within the facility started the fire, which was one of several fires over the months leading up to May 22, 2009. A month prior to the incident the ladies were placed in a small room (12 by 12 feet) as punishment and while in that room, a Police Officer threw an explosive item in the room, allegedly contributing to the cause of the fire. The key for the room could not be found to release the girls in time, resulting in seven girls dying in the fire and others suffering terrible injuries.
It was a tragic day in our country, and while some restitution was given to the survivors or their families, it remains that the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) was negligent, whether directly or indirectly, in discharging their duty to protect our young and vulnerable. Sadly, JYAN fears that the GOJ and their agents have not learned from this tragedy. Is History Repeating Itself?
The Independent Commission for Investigations (INDECOM) in their quarterly report for July to September 2020 revealed disturbing details of the operations of the Rio Cobre Juvenile Correctional Centre (RCJCC). INDECOM noted that, among other things, the penalties applied to the boys are inappropriate and the facilities they are expected to use are subpar when measured against international standards. JYAN considers the report to be eerily hard to digest when one considers that it seems to be a replica of the various reports completed in the aftermath of the Armadale fire.
At RCJCC, “Jail Block” is where the boys are placed for days at a time, often without the ability to leave to relieve themselves, when found to be in breach of rules (such as climbing trees; failing to rake premises; going downstairs without a shirt; and picking up clothes off the line as it was about to rain instead of going directly back to the dormitory). This bears an uncanny similarity to the “Lock-Down” practice at Armadale. Under this practice, in June 2020, a Ward on Jail Block had a seizure but could not be attended to because a Correctional Officer left the Centre with the only key to the cell, supposedly to make a duplicate. The cell only has a sponge on the ground, graffiti on the walls and has no bathroom area. This is already concerning enough but becomes even more problematic when understood that several boys are placed in the cell in some instances, in only their underwear as a strategy to mitigate against self-harm and possible suicide. This sequence of events, again, is reminiscent of those that led to the Armadale fire.
While a percentage of the boys would have said that the facilities are satisfactory, the toilets have no seat, the faucets are missing in the showers and leakages are a regularity. The Nelson Mandela Rules, which are international standards on prison management, in Rules 15, 16 and 17 speak to the need for the sanitary installations, bathing and shower facilities and overall upkeep of the facility to be properly maintained. RCJCC’s management should be vigilant of and be guided by these, bordered on our own domestic laws governing childcare.
Call to Action The GOJ must take the necessary steps to ensure that the Department of Correctional Services and other competent authorities with responsibility for the supervision of children in State care, conduct(s) a thorough assessment of the operating procedures in all such facilities in Jamaica. JYAN also recommends that current Officers be reviewed and vetted for possible additional training or removal from office, whichever the case may be.
We at JYAN believe that State care should coincide with proper care, and that rehabilitation should be rehabilitation and not concentrated provocation of young children in detainment. As young men already found to be on the wrong path in life, the GOJ should take every precaution to ensure they are provided with the right behavioural guidance to become functional parts of society. It would be most unfortunate to witness a similar incident as May 22, 2009; especially if it is because of the government not learning from their severely consequential mistakes. The government should rely on and enforce the provisions of our own Child Care and Protection Act as well as the Nelson Mandela Rules, to completely overhaul the operational framework of RCJCC and other such facilities—more children should not have to die for our leaders to learn their lesson, which should not have had to be taught in the first place.