By Shanea Johnson
Human rights, non-governmental organization, Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ) has started advocating for the release of non-violent and vulnerable inmates. The organization told the Star that it is fearful that the novel coronavirus will spread rapidly within our penal institutions. This comes after SUFJ learnt that there are five confirmed positive cases of the virus at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre last Sunday. I understand that fear can propel us to make rash decisions and with this delicate case one has to make an informed decision. Releasing non-violent and vulnerable inmates might sound like a good idea, but what are the risks?
There are a number of factors to be considered if this hasty decision is made:
- According to the World Health Organization (WHO), symptoms of the coronavirus can be mild then increase gradually. It takes 2-14 days before signs become evident. Imagine inmates who are hosting the virus in their bodies, being released. They might be carriers of COVID-19 without even displaying symptoms. Unsurprisingly, large families could get infected with the possibility of older family members, babies and other vulnerable persons becoming infected – a recipe for disaster.
- In addition, when these inmates are released, where will they go? Not all inmates have a place to call home. Who knows for how long they would have been incarcerated and whether their family members, if accessible, still care about them enough to host them in their homes? If they have nowhere to go, they will be forced to seek housing in shelters or may end up roaming the streets and possibly infecting others as they go.
- These “non-violent and vulnerable” inmates that SUFJ wants to be released may still be a threat to the wider society. Another matter of concern! There is no guarantee that these inmates would have changed. Who knows? They might still have hidden intentions despite being considered as “vulnerable or non-violent”.
These are just a few factors to consider.
Executive Director for Stand Up for Jamaica, Carla Gullotta, in her report, told the Star that inmates within penal institutions should be considered high risk. She noted that as a group, they are not advocating that rapists, dons and murderers be released but that they are mostly considering the juveniles. Can you imagine the risk of releasing juveniles? It is not a guarantee that their parents/guardians will ensure that they stay at home. That is, if they live with a parent/guardian.
The organization also wants “persons who have pre-existing conditions and inmates on parole prioritized”. Yes, I agree that persons with pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk of becoming critically ill if they contract the the virus and as a result they should be given proper care and consideration but I do not agree that they should be released. Perhaps confinement and isolation from others would be a better option.
Looking at the infrastructure of the facilities, I would totally agree with Ms. Gullotta that more needs to be done. Some of these institutions are overcrowded, which indicates a high probability of the virus spreading, and exercising social distancing under these circumstances would be difficult. Not only that, but wardens are also at risk of contracting the virus. I do hope that the Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Gary Rowe and his team are taking the necessary precautions and implementing feasible strategies to contain the spread of the virus at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre and by extension developing the infrastructure of the other facilities.
Ms. Gullotta pleads for the release of the inmates that are eligible for parole. However, as with all legal matters, it is important to note that there are laws in place for the smooth transition of parolees and sometimes there are inmates eligible for parole but end up finding themselves in other unlawful acts and after the assessment of their case, they are no longer able to get parole. It is not as easy as one would think. Yes, there is grave concern for inmates but we cannot make rash decisions because before you know it, a national disaster might just erupt on us. Let us think on these things.
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