Incarceration not making us safer

With 438 of every 100,000 people in prison, The Bahamas has one of the highest rates of imprisonment per capita in the Caribbean and the 12th highest in the world, according to a recent Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report.

The report is based on data collected from 3,528 inmates from six Caribbean countries.

The Bahamas’ rate was significantly higher than the others. Barbados, which had the second highest rate of imprisonment, has 309 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. Guyana has 274 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants; Trinidad, 258; Suriname, 194; and Jamaica, 138.

“Caribbean countries tend to use incarceration to a greater degree than countries in other regions,” the report said.

“Six of the 15 countries with the highest incarceration rates worldwide are Caribbean islands. With one exception, the countries studied in this report had incarceration rates well above the international average of 145 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants.” 

The report noted that high rates of imprisonment do not seem to contribute to a reduction in crime in the region.

“Incarceration has not made Caribbean communities safe,” the report said.

“The Caribbean region suffers from a higher than world average homicide rate — 16 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants compared with six globally (UNODC, 2013) — indicating that imprisonment has a low deterrence effect on serious crime in the region.

“Indeed, four of the six countries studied in this report have homicide rates more than three times the global average. 

“Additionally, there is no evidence that the large incarceration of people who committed drug-related crime is reducing the availability of illegal drugs. Except for Jamaica, the other five countries have between 11 percent and 20 percent of their inmates locked up for drug-related crime, some of them charged for felonies with no violence. Incarceration does not appear to significantly reduce criminality in these countries.”

The Bahamas had the biggest issue with overcrowding, with occupancy at 173 percent of the official prison capacity. It is followed by Guyana, with a rate of 129 percent. Jamaica prisons have an occupancy rate of 89 percent; Trinidad, 82 percent; Suriname, 85 percent; and Barbados, 71 percent.

The report also noted that The Bahamas has one of the highest rates of previous incarceration in a juvenile institution, with 21 percent of inmates surveyed indicating they had been incarcerated as juveniles. Trinidad and Tobago, at 22 percent, was the only country with a higher rate. 

“Of note, while criminological literature acknowledges that incarceration of juveniles may be appropriate under specific conditions, it should be used only as a last resort,” the report said. 


The reduction of prison populations was one of the IDB’s four broad policy recommendations.

“Taken together, these findings indicate that incarceration in the Caribbean is neither effective nor efficient in producing greater safety or just outcomes,” the report said.

The report also recommended the “dramatic” expansion and strengthening of rehabilitation and reintegration programs to prevent recidivism. According to the report, 46 percent of prisoners in The Bahamas had been previously imprisoned for another crime.

“In Guyana, Barbados, Suriname and The Bahamas, roughly a quarter lost their freedom again in less than six months,” the report said.

“These stark findings are cause for concern, making clear that the prison system fails to rehabilitate many offenders or ensure their successful reentry into society.”

The report added, “This is particularly concerning as inmates in the Caribbean usually had unemployment levels higher than the general population in their countries, indicating that limited access to the labor market may be a factor leading to their initial incarceration and underscoring the importance of using the time in prison to increase their labor credentials and thus their employability upon release.”

Of the six countries surveyed, The Bahamas had the highest percentage of inmates with access to work-related programs while in prison, with 57 percent saying they had access.

However, the level of support for transitioning out of prisons was lower in The Bahamas. Only three percent of Bahamian repeat offenders said they had contact with organizations providing support transitioning from detention into the community.

The rate was the lowest in the region – tied with Guyana. Jamaica had the highest rate, with 10 percent, followed by Suriname with eight percent and Trinidad and Barbados, both with six percent.

“Post-release reentry support programs dedicated to issues like job search, housing, drug use treatment, mental health and reintegration into the education system are almost entirely absent in Caribbean countries,” the report said.

It added, “These findings indicate that there are severe deficiencies in the quality and availability of reintegration and reentry programming in Caribbean prisons and that this may contribute to the high recidivism rate, as compared with Latin American countries.”

The report also recommended substance treatment programs to help with recidivism.

“In all of the countries studied, inmates who used drugs and/or alcohol before committing their crime showed higher levels of recidivism than those who did not consume such substances,” it said.

“According to international literature, individuals who have substance abuse issues when incarcerated and have access to treatment programs during custody show lower levels of drug use after leaving prison.

“Yet, none of the Caribbean prisons surveyed offer substance abuse treatment programs. Indeed, high levels of drug use were observed within the Caribbean prisons and, importantly, the results showed that most drugs are brought in by prison staff.

“Since drug use is a risk factor for criminal recidivism, the importance of extending participation in substance use treatment programs during incarceration is a key finding that emerges from this study.

“Within the confines of this study, the implications are clear — effective drug treatment within prisons is essential, as is the prevention of drug sales and use.”

Criminal paths

The implementation of more comprehensive public safety strategies that “balance prevention and control” was the third of the study’s broad policy recommendations.

“A key finding of the study focused on the environment in which inmates are socialized and its implications for their criminal paths,” the report said.

“Inmates who grew up in deprived settings — characterized by family violence, drug and alcohol abuse by parents or caregivers, incarceration of family members, early separation from their household and criminal gangs in the neighborhood — were more likely to commit a crime and showed higher levels of recidivism.

“These risk factors were found consistently among the six countries studied, suggesting that they should be a focus of social prevention policies within Caribbean countries.

“It is essential that interventions strengthen family bonds; target parenting skills and childrearing practices; create family-centered programs for incarcerated parents, their children and families; and develop childhood policies designed to intervene at early stages.

“The importance of preventative interventions — as opposed to crime suppression — cannot be emphasized enough, especially in the Caribbean.”

The fourth broad policy recommendation was reducing the levels of violence within prisons.

“Violence is high in most prisons, with many inmates having either been victimized or witnessed others being victimized,” it said.

“High levels of physical and sexual violence deserve the attention and resources of correctional authorities, and changes should be based on evidence accumulated internationally regarding preventing prison violence and intervention strategies to reduce these incidents.”

According to the report, Bahamian inmates reported the highest rates of physical attacks, with 26 percent saying they had been attacked personally. The report said scarcity of resources provided to inmates is one of the factors that lead violence levels.

In The Bahamas, 69 percent of those surveyed said the prison provided them with a bed. The majority said their families had to provide them with sheets (79 percent), clothes (62 percent) and shoes (82 percent).

“Violence management is also difficult to implement in overcrowded prison facilities, particularly when inmates lack access to basic goods,” the report said.

“Scarcity gives rise to infights for controlling the provisions, and the emergence of illegal markets within prisons.”

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Rachel Knowles

Rachel joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2019. Rachel covers national issues. Education: University of Virginia in Charlottesville, BA in Foreign Affairs and Spanish

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