Photo by Wayne&Wax

Outside Ft. Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, the climate is almost beautiful enough to make you forget that you are outside a prison. Located just outside of Kingston in the neighboring parish of St. Catherine, the oceanside fortress was originally built by the English in the 1740s to serve as Kingston’s main defense on its west side. In 1763, lightning struck the fortress–and its three thousand barrels of gunpowder–and caused an explosion that broke windows 17 miles away and killed three hundred people. Nowadays, the remains of the fortress consists of massive crumbling walls of brick that have been fortified with other materials (including barbed wire, of course!) to make sure they serve their current duty of keeping its 150 female inmates inside.

Ft. Augusta is probably the smallest prison in the system and currently has a very strange predicament. Years ago, the Department of Correctional Services sold the land on which Ft. Augusta currently resides to the Jamaican Port Authority, such that the all-female prison is now effectively a squatter–and one that can’t be moved. According to Kevin, DCS originally had plans to build a huge 5000-inmate prison that would include both males and females and relieve the overcrowding situation faced by most of the institutions in Jamaica, but the new facility is long in coming, so there are no immediate plans to evict the residents of Ft. Augusta. However, no matter how long it is in coming, the move is still anticipated, so no one is willing to do any renovations on the facility for now. The facility is stuck in a precarious sort of limbo.

One part of the facility that desperately requires renovation is the road leading from the highway to the Fort. Instead of saying that it has potholes, I would perhaps say that it has “roadholes”, and that driving along the “road” is perhaps best compared to a connect-the-dots puzzle. The sides of the road alternate between greenery and impromptu garbage dumps, and if not for the idyllic view of the mountains and ocean just in the distance, it would be an exceedingly depressing drive.

Despite the difficulty of the trek, a good number of people are in the visitor’s area every time we visit. The prison is lower-security, smaller, and more isolated than Tower St., but the officers are, if anything, more strict about dress codes. They do, however, always let us drive our van straight into the facility–but not before searching the van and taking away all cell phones.

Through the main gates of the Fort is a big open courtyard surrounded by low administrative and dormitory buildings. There are plenty of palm trees and rocks for the inmates to sit under, and with the salty ocean breeze and the lazy, circling pelicans above, the Fort seems like a perversion of a typical island paradise–and it kind of is, compared to the other institutions.

As mentioned before, there are only about 150 inmates at Ft. Augusta. 80% of the inmates are drug mules, and the eclectic nationalities represented–Trinidad, England, Lithuania–reflects this. Out of the rest, there are only about 15 inmates at present who have committed capital crimes, so most of the inmates are serving relatively short terms. The institution also hosts around 20 juveniles, all of whom were transferred here from a regular juvenile institution for being “uncontrollable”. These statistics help explain the difference in atmosphere between Tower St. and Ft. Augusta. While fights do break out at Fort Augusta, there is much less violence than at Tower St, and so there are also fewer guards walking around with big, scary weapons. The women are, on average, more educated than their male counterparts. They are also allowed outside for longer each day, and so there is more structured rehabilitation outside of SET than at the other two institutions. There’s also the matter of uniforms–all Ft. Augusta inmates wear the same short plaid dress that keeps them cool, though ironically a visitor wearing the same thing would be violating the dress code.

The SET group at Ft. Augusta is much smaller than that of Tower St, although it is actually older. The SET computer lab and library there is its own small building. The inside of the building is brightly colored, with several murals painted by inmates and 10 or so networked computers, each named after a different country. Today, non-SET inmates are using “Japan”, “Canada”, and “Jamaica” to learn typing while the SET president supervises behind them. There have been many problems with keeping the labs consistently open for classes, and with Kevin so busy with the radio station at Tower St., the morale hasn’t been great lately. However, we’ve been giving them ideas for new projects that are starting to rekindle excitement. When the classes end, the meeting begins.

A SET meeting at Ft. Augusta is more structured than at the other institutions. Scripture is read, an inmate leads prayer, and then the SET executive body directs an in-depth discussion about a specific topic. This week, it happens to be “parenting”; as many of the inmates are mothers, it is an active and excited one. Even the officer supervising the inmates participates, posing a question that the inmates and guests are happy to propose solutions for. Many of the women exhibit quite a bit of wisdom, although their situation means that their children wno’t necessarily benefit from it for a while. The inmates speak of their concerns with reconnecting with their children, with trying to re-establish trust, communication, and even boundaries after the long separation. They talk about the difficulties with telling the children the truth about everything from their prison sentences to the universal parenting dilemma–sex. Some share stories, others advice, and it feels very much like a community even though the turnover rate is so high because the sentences are so short.

The younger members of the community are Ft. Augusta’s sadder cases. During the meeting, three juvenile inmates who were asked to attend drape themselves around the female officer who is supervising the meeting. She may be an officer, but she’s also the closest thing to a mother figure they have. Many of the juveniles are truly victims of the system. Some are in the institution simply because of their close proximity to violence–one girl, the close relative of a major don, was put in Ft. Augusta because a shoebox of live bullets was found in her room. Others became “uncontrollable” after the adults in their lives let them down in some way. All have been moved here from the juvenile institutions for exceptionally bad behavior, but there is no mental health system for them to figure out why and treat the problem at the source. All are also now further isolated from any support network they might have had, and are often bullied by the adult inmates.

A few weeks ago, Kevin and I attended Ft. Augusta’s “Family Day” for the juveniles, where the young ones performed songs, dances, and skits for the parents who came to visit interspersed with long speeches from the officers and administrators. The performances were wonderful and showcased the incredible talents and intelligence of the young inmates, but the speeches afterwards showed only how out of touch the system can be with the needs of the juveniles. Officers and child care workers placed undue emphasis on making the children shut up and listen, and getting them to obey mindlessly. One worker told them that if an adult tells them to jump, they should simply ask how high. No wonder the children weren’t listening–how could they take advice like that seriously when most of them are in the institution BECAUSE of the adults in their lives?

Furthermore, there was a troubling sexism that persisted throughout the system. At one point in the ceremony, a child care worker asked a young girl to stand up. She then said: “Look at this young woman. Look at this beautiful young woman. Look at all the things she could be. She could be a beauty queen, or a model, or even a supermodel.” There was no mention of the fact that she could also be a lawyer, or a scientist, or a business owner–instead, once again, these girls are told that their only worth was in their physical beauty. And we wonder why they choose to have sex instead of pay attention to their studies?

On the upside, however, Ft. Augusta has a fair and rehabilitation-focused superintendent and a staff that is willing to work with the SET program to give these girls more opportunities. The future of the Fort may be uncertain, but until they are moved, we will be making the long and bumpy journey to make sure that the women continue to focus on the positive things in life.