IT was the late Wilmot “Motty” Perkins who made Agana Barrett a household name. In 1992, Barrett, a carpenter in his 20s, and two other cellmates suffocated in a cruelly overcrowded cell at the Constant Spring Police Station. Thanks to Perkins’ relentless hammering of the issue, along with the efforts of Jamaicans For Justice, the Jamaican public finally learned about the inhumane conditions of our lock-ups. Sadly, history has repeated itself with the gruesome beating of a young construction worker, Mario Deane, on August 3 in a St James police lock-up — he died three days later.
Reports are that Deane was battered by two men because he sat on a bed for which one of his attackers had declared ownership. We hear that one man being accused of the murder is schizophrenic and the other is a deaf mute.
Describing Mario Deane’s injuries, United States-based pathologist Dr Michael Baden noted that there was no chance of survival, given the head injuries that he had received. The photograph of Mario lying unconscious, his swollen face bandaged and tubed, haunts us, as it should. We in Jamaica have to stop talking about love and justice through ‘two sides of our mouths’.
Only a few months ago we visited the Horizon Adult Remand Centre, where we saw on display furniture, paintings, and accessories made by inmates in various prisons throughout Jamaica — they were excellent, market-ready. Then Commissioner of Corrections Jevene Bent-Brooks told the audience that there had been increased emphasis on rehabilitation for prisoners and their eventual reintegration into society. Regrettably, Mrs Bent-Brooks resigned the post shortly after, noting that the budget allocation for the correctional system was woefully inadequate. The comparison made by Professor Trevor Munroe makes it abundantly clear: $110 million for the entire year vs $100 million for last year’s and $54 million for this year’s one-day Independence Gala.
And so we cringe with embarrassment when, after visiting the Barnett Street jail cell where the fatal incident took place, Dr Baden stated: “We toured the cell in which Mario was injured. It is bad. It is unconscionably small. It does not permit five adult people to reside in this cramped-type cell, with five concrete beds, not beds, just hard concrete.”
The grief of Mario’s relatives wrung our hearts. Jamaica Observer reporter Horace Hines described the scene after the autopsy: “The sight of the hearse leaving the facility with Deane’s body was too much for his aunt, Evadney Hamilton, to watch. ‘Mario! Mario! Murder!..,’ she wailed as relatives tried to console her.”
Let us be clear that this horrible fate could have been visited on any one of us. We know innocent people who have been jailed in error. Mario Deane was arrested because he was in possession of a single spliff. It is a parent’s worst nightmare.
If we continue to make prisons a place of brutality, we will be turning first offenders into hardened criminals — if they manage to survive. Is it any wonder then that we are all imprisoning ourselves behind burglar bars?
On a visit to Norway, we were told of the humanitarian conditions in their prisons, and noted that there were large neighbourhoods with just a couple of policemen on duty. Many folks left their doors wide open.
There are rich resources in our country that can turn our desperation into hope; what we need is the level of governance that will make every citizen feel respected and protected. There are leaders who still have the love of our people; now is the time for them to step up and prove themselves deserving. Let us never tire to speak of Mario Deane and the many others who suffer injustice. As black power activist Angela Davis wrote: “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.”
Crashes on land and at sea
Last week, just as we were breathing a sigh of relief that August gave us quiet roads, we were hit by a spate of traffic fatalities — 20 lives lost in a single week! Dr Lucien Jones, the convenor of the National Road Safety Council called on the police, our lawmakers, and every road user to ensure that this trend does not continue. Imagine, an infant in St Ann and a five-year-old were among the dead. Our hearts go out to their grieving families.
Then came the news that philanthropists Larry and Jane Glazer were killed when their aeroplane crashed off Jamaica’s north-east coast. There have been many tributes to the Glazers, and we sympathise with their three children who are understandably “devastated” at the loss of their parents.
Sad as it is, it would have been much worse had the crash happened on land. A tragic week, indeed, but we should note that representatives of the Jamaica Defence Force who spoke with the media here and abroad gave an excellent account of themselves.
The Gleaner’s 180th anniversary
To launch the Gleaner’s 180th anniversary celebrations, there was a memorable church service at the historic Kingston Parish Church where, in delivering the homily, Bishop Howard Gregory commended the paper on its role as the biblical ‘watchman’.
He stated: “…you are to be commended for the watchman’s role you have played, with all the anguish that no doubt accompanies such a stance…The point of all of this is that, as the system of governance takes more and more control over the life of citizens, there seems to be no commensurate openness and exploration of the kind of values which are informing the decisions being made, and the extent to which these reflect the thinking and values of the members of the society.”
The bishop said the role of the media “has been made more complicated by the culture of political tribalism and the politicisation of every issue in our national life, and the attempt to label and pigeonhole anyone who would speak on issues that have a clear political dimension and implications”.
Now here is a profound observation from the bishop, and let our leaders take good note: “Under the cover of this tribalism and process of politicisation, we have perpetuated a system by which the most lucrative jobs in the public sector and in statutory corporations are reserved as reward for party loyalists, whose first qualification may have nothing to do with competence, and in a manner lacking in transparency and accountability to the people of this nation.”
He warned that this is contributing “to the brain drain pipeline, as many of our emerging young minds realise that there is no future for them unless they are prepared to play ball in this political culture. And the rules of the political game have not really changed since 1962. This makes the work of the journalist one of walking a tightrope if one is to maintain a sense of credibility and professionalism”.
Even as we learn to be acrobats, we should not be so tolerant of blatant misuse of power. Clearly, there is work to be done. Congratulations, Gleaner; let all of us in media collaborate to promote leadership excellence.