(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — Errol Wignoll has come to accept the reality that he may very well die in prison but has one wish for the Christmas season and that is to see his daughter again before his last day.
The Jamaica Observer spoke briefly with the 53-year-old last Thursday at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, central Kingston, where inmates were treated to a few precious moments of contact visitation with their loved ones at the annual Family Fun Day put on by the Lay Magistrates of Jamaica, Kingston Chapter.
“I haven’t seen or heard from my daughter in 10 years. None of my family members come look fi mi since mi in here,” said Wignoll, who was among over 70 inmates who were neither lucky to receive gifts from loved ones nor graced by their presence, not even for the festive season.
Currently serving a life sentence for murder, which involves spending 20 years before he becomes eligible for parole, Wignoll is hopeful that if he is able to reach his daughter, he could convince her to visit him.
“The only way out of here is if mi dead, so I want some help to reach out to her so that she can come look for me,” he said.
But according to Superintendent of Police Michael Anderson, who is responsible for inmates’ welfare, of the 1,600 men currently serving time at the correctional facility, more than 50 per cent ever see any relatives at all for the duration of their stay in prison.
“Of all the inmates inside here, between 30 to 40 per cent of the inmates get regular visits. The others don’t get any visits,” Anderson told the Sunday Observer.
These abandoned inmates, as he called them, had no relatives visiting them for either one of two reasons.
“If they have family members, they don’t visit them anymore either because of a mental illness that the inmate has and they don’t want to come look for them, or, depending on the type of offence committed, families will refuse to visit the inmates.
“Their relatives will rally around them when they are awaiting trial or when they are appellants, but as soon as they get sentenced then things change significantly. The visits change tremendously for convicted inmates because they are only entitled to two visits per month. When you are on trial you get as much as is humanly possible. So we take on a more caregiving role once the person in convicted,” Anderson said.
President of the Lay Magistrates of Jamaica, Kingston Chapter, Lieutenant Colonel Euken Mills, showed the Sunday Observer visitation data that had been collating since the early 1970s, which showed inmates, primarily those serving life sentences, who have not seen relatives in over 30 years.
“One inmate who was convicted in 1972 had not received any visit since his conviction up to 2011 when we visited the facility. Another five inmates were convicted in 1999, and up to 2011 no family had come to visit them,” Mills said.
He explained that in some cases where inmates provided a name and contact for a family member, the relatives denied having any relation to the inmate, wanting to dissociate themselves from their loved one.
“When we contacted the persons who the inmates gave, we found that those persons would say they didn’t know the inmate. You have family members who don’t want to associate themselves with the inmate,” said Mills.
In these instances, Superintendent Anderson explained that correctional officers have filled this social gap for the inmates.
“We essentially become their family,” he said. “We become their parents, their guardians and friends. We have to give all the support we can as correctional officers for the length of their sentence because after a while they become institutionalised.
“We have to assume these roles doing almost everything that the family should do including helping the inmate, correct the inmate by providing support. But we as correctional officers have to pick up the slack, doing corrective measures but also attending to their social needs and helping them pick up the pieces,” said Anderson.
Custos of Kingston Steadman Fuller expanded on the point about inmates becoming institutionalised when relatives and loved ones abandon them. This, he said, is linked to a culture of not wanting to forgive wrongdoers once they had served their time.
“We have a serious problem in rehabilitation because we don’t forget things and we don’t forgive things. For a number of these inmates, after they have served their time and ready to come back into society they face roadblocks. Once it is documented that a person has served time, however good he appears to be, there is discrimination, especially in looking for employment.
“As a people we have to determine at what point we are prepared to accept those persons who have served time and are willing to reintegrate into society,” said Fuller.
He argued that this failure of society to help people reintegrate after they had served time contributes to the number of repeat offenders who eventually find themselves back in a correctional facility.
“You are going to have recidivism if a person is released and have nowhere to go and nobody to accept them, not even relatives. They commit themselves again to go back in because they get three meals per day and somewhere to sleep. A lot of these men are serving life sentences and for most of them their next destination will be the cemetery,” said Fuller.
Another inmate, 69-year-old Donovan Barnett, told the Sunday Observer that he would not want to go home because in the 19 years he has been in prison, no relative has come to see him.
“A four life sentence mi get so a dead mi a guh dead in yah,” said Barnett. “Some a wi nuh wan go home ’cause we nuh have no family. From mi come here 2001 and mi a soon 70 years old, none a mi family them nuh come look fi mi,” he added.
In the meantime, Wignoll, who was convicted in 2009, has developed a strong faith in God and is still hopeful that he will see his daughter. He has also, since being in prison, become literate.
“I believe that God send mi here for a reason. When I came to GP I couldn’t read but is since mi deh in here them teach mi how to read and write,” Wignoll said.