This week in history: 16 inmates die in Jamaica’s 1997 prison riots

A section of the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, more popularly called GP (General Penitentiary) in Kingston. (Photo: DCS.gov.jm)

Jamaica’s chequered past with homophobia took an even darker turn 23 years ago when deadly prison strikes swept maximum security facilities in St Catherine and Kingston in mid-August 1997.

The three-day killing spree started at St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre in Spanish Town, St Catherine, and the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, more popularly called GP (General Penitentiary) in Kingston, amid a walk-out by wardens at both facilities.

Incensed wardens demanded then-Commissioner of Corrections Colonel John Prescod’s resignation after he announced a plan the week before, to distribute condoms to wardens and inmates alike following increased cases of HIV infection.

Under the impression Prescod alluded to them having sex with the inmates, the officers left the prisons unsupervised and those imprisoned largely monitored themselves.

Having broken the locks themselves prisoners formed cliques. Out in the open day and night, often hungry, angry and fearful—tensions among the inmates reached a boiling point.

At this stage, to bury any notion sex between inmates was happening (contrary to the undisputed fact), a purging of suspected homosexuals began.

Men were stabbed, others set ablaze, burnt to death and scores more seriously injured as the officials fell silent to the rampant executions.

Once the ‘gay-cleanse’ was all but over, the murders became more political by nature as inmates suspected of being affiliated with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) were targeted by People’s National Party (PNP) supporters.

St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre in Spanish Town. (Photo: DCS.gov.jm)

The official figure for the 1997 prison riots stands around 16 deaths and 40 injuries, however, surviving ex-inmate Henzel Muir, in a 2019 interview with the Jamaica Observer, surmised that the death toll is possibly much higher.

“The blood weh me see in a ’97 riot make me start have nightmare and waking up all hours of the night. Mi couldn’t sleep. The officers left the prison. We were outside day and night and mi see all sort of killings,” he recalled.

“The riot turned out to be a homosexual war. The big men were killing out the homosexuals. Twenty-seven persons died and the prison was locked down for about three days. When them couldn’t kill out anymore homosexual, them turn it into a political war,” Muir continued.

The Jamaican Government sent a joint police-military outfit to quell the two main prisons by Friday, August 22, but by then 16 men were already dead.

Authorities launched an investigation, and by the middle of the following week, 15 prisoners at General Penitentiary had been charged in the murders and ten at the St Catherine District Prison.

A month later, newly installed Prime Minister PJ Patterson offered a public apology to the families of the dead and injured, but the tragedy was largely untouched by local and international media.

Then-Justice Minister K.D. Knight said on Tuesday, September 9, that he would appoint a three-member commission to investigate the riots. Families of some of the dead expressed their intent to sue the Jamaican government.

Colonel Prescod, whose plans sparked the rampage and on whose watch it occurred, remained in his job. He wouldn’t leave the post until January 2003. The warders’ union never publicly expressed mortification at the consequences of their walkout.

K.D. Knight, who served as Minister of Justice in the 1997 prison riots. (Photo: JIS)

Several months later, in November, a public inquiry was held and, ironically, the late Justice Ellis chaired and ruled that members of the public could not take notes. The decision was later appealed and overturned.

Still, it seems we have learned nothing as the 1997 prison riots birthed its own sinister legacy.

According to the Jamaica Observer article, the isolation of suspected homosexual inmates at TSACC today has its origins in the deadly prison strikes.