Big drop in J’can drug mules in UK prisons

WOMEN now account for less than 15 per cent of the 942 Jamaicans currently being fed, clothed and educated at the expense of British taxpayers who shell out millions annually to rehabilitate them.

Olga Heaven, director of Hibiscus — the Female Prisoners Welfare Project (FPWP) that advocates the rights of foreign nationals in UK prisons and assists deported women — told the Sunday Observer from her London office recently that a little more than 100 Jamaican women are serving time in about 10 facilities in that country. Of this number, about 50 per cent were doing time for drug-related offences. The other women, the FPWP Hibiscus founder said, were there for offences such as working illegally, overstaying their time in the UK, among other crimes.

“The numbers have gone down drastically,” Heaven said. “In 2005 we had well over 600 (Jamaican) women in prison, but now that number is very low; very low,” she gushed.

In fact, she told the Sunday Observer that within the last six months there had been “only four” new drug arrests, one of which was for cannabis.

This “drastic” reduction in the female prison population in the UK presents a far different picture from what obtained several years ago. During the late 1990s, for instance, it was estimated that one in 10 Jamaican passengers on flights to the UK were drug traffickers. The problem escalated during 2001 as more Jamaican women joined their male counterparts and boarded daily flights to Britain carrying their deadly portions dangerously tucked away inside their stomachs and other body cavities. They were called “drug mules” or “swallowers”.

As the Jamaican and British authorities stepped up surveillance at the affected airports during 2001, the prison population grew in both countries. During the first eight months of 2001, UK police arrested 226 Jamaicans, including 98 women as they reportedly attempted to enter the country through Gatwick and Heathrow airports with drugs. Over that same period, the Jamaican police arrested 444 British-bound male and female traffickers.

By the end of 2003 there were approximately 700 Jamaican women serving time in UK prisons for drugs. In Britain, the Home Office said Jamaicans accounted for nearly half of the prisoners in most of Britain’s women’s facilities.

Today, although Jamaicans are still among the largest groups of foreign national prisoners, there is much

to “celebrate”.

“Jamaica needs to celebrate the fact that the number of women serving time for drugs has declined drastically,” Heaven emphasised.

“We should also celebrate the fact Jamaica is no big thing in the drug trade anymore,” she told the Sunday Observer.

Heaven attributes the decline in numbers to her organisation’s role in educating women about the dangers of smuggling drugs. The group had in fact undertaken a number of radio, television and newspaper campaigns in Jamaica to this end. Hibiscus also held a number of conferences locally in keeping with its thrust to keep women away from drug kingpins and out of UK prisons.

“The relevance of the Eva Goes to Foreign campaign is paying off. The messages have worked well as a deterrent,” Heaven explained. This campaign, launched in Jamaica in 2002, and which is heavily promoted by FPWP Hibiscus Jamaica, is designed to increase awareness about the dangers and consequences of smuggling drugs.

The campaign utilises posters and comic strips to chronicle the life and struggles of a female drug smuggler (Eva) who was sentenced to 14 years in a UK prison.

But Heaven cautioned that although the number of arrests continued to taper, Jamaica should not become complacent. “Jamaica needs to keep the momentum going. It is important to keep encouraging women and educating the children about the dangers of carrying drugs,” she said.

The decrease may also be attributed to improvements in Jamaica’s surveillance capabilities and tightened security at Jamaica’s two main airports in Kingston and Montego Bay. The introduction of visa controls in 2003 as well as Operation Airbridge — the joint effort by Jamaican and British law enforcement officials forged in June 2002 to tackle the growing drug trade — were also contributing factors. The latter resulted in tighter security at Jamaica’s main ports of entry as well as the installation of modern drug detection equipment. The British Government insisted that the visa system was aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, but critics said was intended to put a dent in drug and gun-related crimes.

Operation Airbridge was credited with nabbing a large number of Jamaica’s drug mules before they made it into the UK. For example, Jamaica’s Constabulary Communication Network (CCN), the communications arm of the JCF, said that between June 2002 and January 2005, 1,132 people were held at Jamaican airports with drugs; 332 of them were foreign nationals. The police was, however, unable to provide a breakdown of the number of females included in this figure. Meanwhile, according to data from the UK’s Home Office, in the first year after Operation Airbridge was launched, 185 drug traffickers were arrested at Heathrow and Gatwick, compared to 730 the previous year.

Additionally, Jamaica’s prison population has dwindled over the years as more persons complete their sentences and take up the UK’s controversial 2006 cash incentive offer (under its Facilitated Returns Scheme) to return home.

But although the figures have been trending down, this is apparently cold comfort to UK officials who recently indicated that the large number of foreign nationals being held at Her Majesty’s leisure was putting a financial strain on that country’s already stretched budget. In 2006, a Home Office representative was quoted as saying that the average annual cost to the UK for keeping a prisoner was £37,000. Last week, the Daily Mail put that figure at around £38,000. According to the Telegraph and Mail Online, of the approximately 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales, around 11,000 were from overseas. Jamaicans accounted for the largest group of foreign nationals at 942, followed by Nigeria with 727 and the Irish Republic with 681.

Two weeks ago Jamaica initiated discussions with local British officials after the Daily Mail reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron planned to pursue a cost-cutting initiative that would see thousands of these foreign prisoners being sent back home to complete their sentences.

In October, changes were made to that country’s controversial Facilitated Returns Scheme, which offers cash to prisoners if they agreed not to fight deportation. Previously, they were offered £500 in cash and up to £4,500 “in kind” (to be invested in small businesses or go towards training). However, under the new scheme, they are now being offered up to £1,500, “the majority of which should be spent on reintegration,” the Telegraph reported.

British Immigration Minister Damian Green, was quoted on the Home Office website as saying that it was “a practical solution” that would save British taxpayers money “in the long run”.

“Every day that a foreign national is held in prison costs the taxpayer money — that is why I want to see them removed from the UK at the earliest opportunity,” said Green.

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