Reading Time: 8 minutes

Anything that encourages constructive public discussion of penal policy can only be welcomed. Last year, Jamaica’s prison services cost around half a million pounds, and between three and a half and four thousand people were sent to gaol. One would like to think that we had some consistent and generally agreed ideas about the purpose of all this, but in fact we do not. Does the State put itself to all this trouble and expense in order to avenge itself on lawbreakers, to protect the rest of us by keeping the volume of crime within bounds, or to tum criminals into “useful members of society”? Something of each perhaps. But we have scarcely the vaguest of notions about the extent to which any of these aims is being fulfilled. We need to know much more about the actual effects of the prison sentences imposed on our behalf, and we need to clarify our intentions if we hope to achieve anything better. Needless to say, these problems are not peculiar to Jamaica; but that is no reason for us to ignore them.

Mr. Henry Guy’s little book Men in Prison[1] is one welcome encouragement to discussion. It is part descriptive, part historical, and in part an argument for reform. It has the distinction of being the one available account of prison life in Jamaica that draws on the author’s own experience as a convict.[2] The issues it touches are fundamental. For all of these reasons the book is worth reading.

This is not to say that Mr. Guy succeeds in giving us a comprehensive account of Jamaica’s prison system, or an adequate history, or any thoroughly worked-out proposals for reform. He does not pretend to have done so. Indeed, he would probably have written a better book had he been content with even more limited aims. The book I should prefer to read – and I am sure it is one Mr. Guy could write – is a more personal account of his experience, his observation of fellow-prisoners, and of their relations with one another and the prison staff. The first chapter of Men in Prison has a section headed “Inhabitants”, which offers a glimpse of what might have been – or perhaps of what might yet be if Mr. Guy feels moved to meet the need. Such an account would have much more value than his speculations about criminal psychology or his views about penal reform, which are limited. Anyone could advance these, but only an observant and articulate ex-prisoner can give us a detailed picture of the prison as a social system enmeshing the individual.

As it is, the book’s various strands appear, coalesce, vanish, and re-emerge in a rather confusing fashion. It is not always easy to decide whether Mr. Guy is speaking about conditions in the past or about contemporary prison life. One moves from a physical description of the General Penitentiary to an account of prison disturbances and their repression from 1926 to 1951. From there, one passes to a series of short biographical sketches of recent and present-day senior officials, and then back to a description of prison organisation and routine. The thread of the argument within individual chapters very often follows an equally erratic course. I am not criticising the book in this way because of its failure to measure up to some canon of scholarly perfection, but in order to warn the prospective reader that he is unlikely to find it altogether lucid or coherent.

Mr. Guy’s general argument can be summed up roughly as follows. Conditions in Jamaican prisons have been abominable. In recent years, they have improved considerably, though not as rapidly as they might have done. We can hope for further improvements in the future, provided enough enlightened public interest is aroused, and provided the authorities take a more urgent view of the situation. What we need to do, he says, is to pay much more attention to the task of re-educating prisoners while they are serving their sentences, and of providing aids to rehabilitation when they are released.