Recently, an article appeared in the press describing a hurricane shelter that has recently been completed at Northward prison.
The shelter is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
The Cayman Contractors Association was interested in this article, as it had been reported that the shelter was constructed at a fraction of the normal cost, since 100 per cent of the labour was performed by the prisoners themselves.
The CCA requested to perform an inspection of the building to assess the quality of the construction and, if possible, to talk to some of those who were involved in the planning, supervision and construction.
The Commissioner of Corrections, Dr. William Rattray proved eager to meet with the CCA and an inspection took place on 24th October.
Our first surprise was that the structure was indeed very well built. Our second surprise was that all trades: masonry, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, tiling, etc. were all performed 100 per cent by inmates. No contractors were hired for any portion of the work.
The quality of workmanship varied. The plasterwork on one wall might be excellent, while the workmanship on an adjacent wall would be of a lower quality. We were advised that this was dependent on two factors. First, during the construction, some new inmates came in, others were paroled, so the skill level varied. Second, the team of prison officers that coordinated the project sought to give all prisoners the opportunity to contribute, regardless of their skill levels.
We were very impressed at this last fact, as it showed that the team was more interested in providing opportunities for prisoners to develop their skills and self-esteem than they were in getting the best possible finish. Any inmate who had the desire to contribute had the opportunity.
We had assumed that the workday for the inmates was a short one and were again surprised to learn that they worked a nine-hour day, five days per week and that inmates took on the task by choice. They were eager to be out of their cells and to be active. As an additional incentive, they were paid $24 per day for their labour. This is a small amount in comparison to the world outside, and is instructive to inmates that they are paying for their accommodations – an incentive not to return to Northward after they are paroled.
It is, of course, gratifying that a proper hurricane shelter exists for inmates, both for the protection of human life and for the assurance of security at Northward, should a hurricane hit. However, this suggested that the shelter would be used only rarely and we were curious as to whether it would serve an additional function between storms. The team advised us that its intent was to utilize it as a health centre, as the great majority of inmates are there due to drug offenses. By providing equipment for exercise, and hosting competitions, the centre will hope to change inmates’ focus to one of health.
The most gratifying surprise was discussing the project with inmates, who are already hard at work on another structure. They are clearly proud of their accomplishment and many of them feel for the first time that when they are released, they have a chance at a career. As we all know, low self-esteem is a primary cause of drug dependency and many of the workers at Northward are finding self-respect and hope for a future for the first time as a result of their efforts.
It is astonishing that there is so much latent skill at Northward that could be developed, yet, at present, we are doing very little to utilize that skill, in spite of the fact that all of us on Cayman want to diminish recidivism. Those of us who are employers tend to raise an eyebrow when a parolee comes to us looking for work and, by doing so, we are compounding the problem.
There is presently a major gap between what parolees can do and the likelihood of their being able to apply their skills in the workforce. We need, first, to be educating inmates in how to be a part of the working world and, second, to be providing a system through which they can find employment and encouragement upon their release. Third, we need to provide ongoing counseling through the parole system to help them in overcoming the difficulties that they will encounter in adapting to the working world, so that they may become productive citizens.
Cayman Contractors Association