The fire at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009 should have transformed Jamaica’s juvenile justice system. It should have caused a national reflection on how the State treats the vulnerable, the incarcerated and the condemned. Amidst ever-increasing levels of distrust in politicians and public officials, in addition to constant claims of inaction and a refusal to hold individuals accountable, this was an opportunity to prove us critics wrong.
Instead, three years later, it proved three things:
Lesson 1: They gonna talk
On November 3, 2009, then Solicitor General Douglas Leys told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that, “a new culture is emerging, a new day is dawning in the attitude of the State towards children in places of safety”.
Less than three years since Leys’ statement, the question should be asked, has the new day arrived? A look at a few headlines since the start of the year shows us that we have not learnt much, if anything at all.
On January 26, news surfaced that the Children’s Advocate received reports that Maxfield Park Children’s Home lacked proper safety measures, a resident nurse, fire extinguishers and had a malfunctioning fire hydrant. A new culture?
A couple of weeks after, the country was informed that children were still being held in police lock-ups and adult prisons. It was reported that 40 boys were in adult lock-ups and 56 girls in adult prison. A new day?
Lesson 2: Impunity reigns
The fire occurred under the watch of Mrs June Spence-Jarrett, the acting commissioner of corrections at the time. She assumed this position in December 2008, having previously been a deputy commissioner and director of juvenile institutions.
Then, in July of 2009, during the Armadale Enquiry, Mrs Spence-Jarrett was promoted to commissioner of corrections. It wasn’t until March 2010, after the release of the Armadale Report and mounting public pressure, that she was removed only to be assigned as the CEO of the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica.
New attitude? Apparently not. The attitude remains the same: we must place more emphasis on protecting the reputation of adults than on the well-being of our children.
Lesson 3: We have to act
Unfortunately, the cycle of gross neglect towards children in State care has become engrained in our culture. However, the same is true for the cycle of silence on the part of Jamaicans. We must accept responsibility for our inaction and indifference. It is our duty to keep the fire under the Government’s feet, for the sake of our children. We have the power to determine what will be said at the fourth, fifth and 10th Armadale memorials.
Let us be the ones who ensure that all children are taken out of adult lock-ups. Let us call for the provision of quality education by qualified teachers for all children in juvenile justice institutions. Let us insist that all institutions are equipped with a full-time medical orderly or nurse in-residence as well as an increase in visits from medical and mental health personnel.
It is said that with a new day comes a new beginning. Not so for our children in State care. They deserve a new day, a new culture and a new attitude. We must act, and we must act now.