Executive Summary

Jamaica is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In national elections in 2016, the Jamaica Labour Party led by Prime Minister Andrew Michael Holness won 32 of the 63 seats in the House of Representatives. The party gained an additional seat in an October 2017 by-election to increase its majority in parliament to 33-30. International and local election observers deemed the elections transparent, free, and fair but noted isolated incidents of violence leading up to and on election day. Observers deemed the by-election transparent, free, fair, and peaceful.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Human rights issues included reports of arbitrary and unlawful killings by government security forces; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; arbitrary detention; and corruption by officials. The law criminalizes consensual same-sex activity between men, but the government did not enforce the law during the year.

The government took some steps to investigate and prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. Nonetheless, there was a general sense that full and swift accountability for some officials alleged to have committed human rights abuses remained elusive.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were numerous reports that government security forces committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), the country’s police force, was responsible for the majority of the cases. As of October 23, the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), the body parliament established in 2010 to investigate abuses by agents of state, had received 122 reports of security force-related fatalities, compared with 168 in 2017. These were cases where police or joint military-police activity led to the death of a civilian.

The government did not take sufficient action to address this problem. Of the cases of security force-related fatalities reported to INDECOM, fewer than 5 percent led to official charges, and fewer than 2 percent led to a conviction. Even egregious charges against members of the security forces could take years to process. In 2007 police constable Mark Russell shot and killed an unarmed teenage boy in Kingston. The court concluded Russell planted a police-issued rifle on the victim’s person as he lay wounded in the street to corroborate a false report. Defense counsel used various procedural maneuvers to delay the case. In September the court sentenced Russell to 24 years in prison.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution prohibits such practices, although there is no legal definition of torture. Allegations of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment towards individuals in police custody continued. The majority of reports described officials using physical force, intimidation, access to water, and extreme exposure to heat or cold to coerce a change in testimony. INDECOM investigated reports of alleged abuse committed by police and prison officials. Representatives from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jamaicans for Justice claimed abuse was likely underreported by victims, who feared reprisal or did not believe authorities would act on their complaint.

In one case an elderly woman, Desrine Morris, died while in police custody on or about March 1. The JCF arrested Morris for an unspecified bench warrant. Less than six hours later police reported she had hanged herself. There were no follow-up police reports, and the autopsy did not confirm a cause of death. Friends and family members were skeptical of this being a suicide. Media reports suggested that excessive punitive force may have led to the death.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention facilities were harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, physical abuse, limited food, inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care, and poor administration. Reports existed of corrections officers using their authority to take bribes and control access to prisoners.

Physical Conditions: Some of the most egregious reports of human rights abuses took place in “lock-ups” (facilities to hold pretrial detainees). For example, when the government declared a state of emergency in the parish of St. James in January, it identified a lock-up in Montego Bay to facilitate the influx of detained suspects. The Ministry of Health reported major problems, including the lack of functioning bathroom facilities, lighting, and handwashing stations; poor ventilation; and inadequate drainage. Ministry inspectors noted illnesses caused by cockroaches, rats, mosquitoes, and flies. Detainees consumed nutritionally poor meals. There was no refrigeration on site for food storage. Detainees had less than one hour per day out of the cell to use shower facilities and get food. In some cases guards reportedly denied access to bathrooms and water in order to coerce and punish inmates.

Family members frequently had to wait in long lines to visit detainees held in the Montego Bay lock-up. The guards posted a sign instructing those who wished to purchase a meal for family members to visit a specific gasoline station. A credible report existed of families paying for meals, without receipts or confirmation that a meal was delivered, suggesting the administrators pocketed the money. Attorneys reported extreme difficulty reaching their clients and conveyed that in most cases their detainees did not know why they were arrested. After receiving citizen complaints and some media coverage, the government took some corrective actions to reduce the number of detainees and improve the conditions of the detention facility.

Physical conditions in correctional facilities were slightly better than police lock-ups, but overcrowding remained a concern. At times cells in the maximum-security facilities at Tower Street and St. Catherine held 200 percent of their intended capacity. Local NGOs reported that this occurred because prison administrators did not triage prisoners to lower-security facilities as they should have. Cells were very dark, had subpar bathroom and toilet facilities, and limited ventilation. Prisoners sometimes were unable to receive required medication, including medication for HIV, according to UNAIDS. The HIV prevalence rate among incarcerated populations (more than 3 percent) was reportedly as much as double that of the general population. Four part-time psychiatrists cared for at least 225 inmates diagnosed as persons with mental disabilities in 11 facilities across the island.

Administration: Independent authorities investigated allegations of abuse and inhuman conditions. Official complaints and investigations were infrequent and likely underreported. The Office of the Children’s Advocate investigated matters involving minors.

Independent Monitoring: Justices of the Peace and representatives from the Police Civilian Oversight Authority (PCOA) visited correctional centers and lock-ups regularly. The PCOA submitted reports to the Ministry of National Security with recommendations to improve conditions. Citizen groups and NGOs believed the ministry rarely acted upon the recommendations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention but permits arrest with “reasonable suspicion of [a subject] having committed or …about to commit a criminal offense.” The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements; however, abuses arose because police regularly ignored the “reasonable suspicion” requirement, arraignment procedures were very lengthy, and large portions of the country were under a state of emergency.

When a public state of emergency (SOE) is declared, the police and military have search, seizure, and arrest authority without a warrant. A state of emergency expires in 14 days unless parliament agrees to extend it. Additionally, the government can identify zones of special operations (ZOSOs), which confers the same authority to security forces, albeit within much smaller physical boundaries. During the year the prime minister declared three geographic areas to fall under an SOE–St. James Parish, announced in January; St. Catherine Parish North Division, declared in March; and a segment of Kingston and St. Andrew Parish, announced in September. Arbitrary and lengthy detentions took place in the execution of both the ZOSOs and SOEs. The Office of the Public Defender, commissioned by parliament to investigate civil and human rights abuses, received reports that security forces temporarily detained more than 2,000 persons in Montego Bay, which was within the St. James SOE, from January to October. Across the country police detained 6,000 persons during the same period. The average length of detention was four days. Extremely few of these arrests resulted in charges.


The prime minister has general authority over the Jamaican Defense Board and, as Chairman of the Board, has ministerial responsibility for defense-related matters including the command, discipline, and administration of forces. He is the de facto Minister of Defense. The Ministry of National Security, however, functions as the ministerial home of the Jamaica Defense Force (JDF) and directs policy over the security forces. The JCF, with units for community policing, special response, intelligence gathering, and internal affairs, has primary responsibility for internal security. The JDF’s mandate is to maintain the integrity of Jamaica’s waters and airspace and to provide aid to the civil authorities when appropriate. The JDF, including the Coast Guard, has responsibility for national defense and maritime narcotics interdiction. When the prime minister and parliament declare a state of emergency, the JDF has arrest authority and operational partnership alongside the JCF. The Passport, Immigration, and Citizenship Agency has responsibility for migration.

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces. The government had mechanisms to investigate and punish police abuse, but they were not always employed.

There were hundreds of abuse and wrongful harm complaints regarding the security forces. INDECOM investigated actions by members of the security forces and other agents of the state that resulted in death, injury, or the abuse of civil rights. When appropriate, INDECOM forwarded cases to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for agents to make an arrest. INDECOM remained one of the few external and independent oversight commissions that monitored security forces, but it was unable to investigate each case thoroughly. As of October 23, INDECOM reported 122 security force-related fatalities.


Police officers may arrest without warrant where a felony, treason, or breach of the peace is committed or attempted in the officer’s presence. Upon arrest, the officer is required to tell a suspect in clear language the offense(s) for which the individual is being arrested. Any officer may execute a warrant that is lawfully issued by a judge or justice of the peace without being in possession of the warrant. The officer must produce the warrant if the suspect requests it as soon as practical after the arrest. The decision to charge or release must be resolved within 48 hours, although a judge or justice of the peace may extend the period of custody.

Security forces did not always follow these official procedures. Government officials and members of civil society reported that the public perceived police could arrest regardless of judicial authorization.

Additionally, there were reports of arrests and prolonged periods of detention in which police did not inform the suspect of the official charges. There were multiple reports that detainees did not have access to legal counsel and that apprehended suspects could not notify family members. NGOs estimated that 90 percent of all arrests occurred without a warrant. A police officer could simultaneously arrest and deny bail. The relative looseness in procedure lent itself to low-level corruption where a police constable could accept bribes in lieu of an arrest.

Arbitrary Arrest: Cases of arbitrary detention were greatest in the parishes of St. James and St. Catherine. Since January and March, respectively, the government declared a SOE in these areas because of high levels of criminal and gang violence. The government deployed the military to support local law enforcement. Under these orders security forces carried out a wide-reaching campaign of arbitrary detention and incarceration in an attempt to contain the violence. Media reported that security forces arrested and detained more than 6,000 persons under these conditions. In some cases the police released persons after two weeks of imprisonment only to rearrest them and keep them in jail. Officials, NGOs, and security experts speculated security forces had orders to meet a specified number of arrests each day. There were few official investigations or prosecutions of security force members involved in arbitrary arrests.

Pretrial Detention: Lock-ups are intended for short-term detentions of 48 hours or less, but often the government held suspects in these facilities without charge or awaiting trial for much longer periods. A lack of administrative follow-through after the arrest created problems where persons were incarcerated without any accompanying paperwork. In some cases, weeks, days, or months later, authorities could not ascertain why someone was arrested.

The Office of the Public Defender received reports that when someone was arrested in a ZOSO, the average time in detention was four days. The majority of arrests ended with no charges and the suspect released. The Office of the Public Defender estimated that 14 persons arrested in a ZOSO during the year had been held without charge in excess of 100 days.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. An extreme backlog of criminal cases, however, led to a denial of fair public trial for thousands of citizens.

The Ministry of Justice estimated that more than 400,000 criminal cases were awaiting trial. This delay occurred from numerous causes. Defense attorneys often requested committal proceedings, which are lengthy and resource intensive. Additionally, the legal infrastructure in terms of buildings, judges, courts, and other facilities remained virtually the same despite the huge backlog. Finally, the courts were hesitant to implement technological improvements such as teleconferencing witness testimony or admitting videos recorded from a telephone. Consequently, criminal proceedings could extend for years. The government’s statistical office reported the legal system failed to convict in more than 90 percent of murder cases. During the year courts made significant efforts to address the backlog by closely monitoring and reporting case throughput to the Ministry of Justice.


The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The law provides defendants a presumption of innocence, the right to counsel, and the ability to confront witnesses. Defendants have the right to be informed of the charges against them and the right to a trial within a reasonable time. Defendants had ample time to prepare defense and may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. They have the right to appeal. Public attorneys were available to defend the indigent, except those charged with drug-related crimes or high-level criminal conspiracy. The government provided free assistance of an interpreter as necessary. The Supreme Court tries serious criminal offenses, which include all murder cases.


There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.


There is an independent and impartial civil judiciary process. Complainants may bring human rights abuse cases to the courts for civil remediation, but awards were difficult to collect. The government is required to undertake pretrial negotiations or mediation in an attempt to settle out of court, but this rarely occurred. When there were settlements, the government often lacked the funds to pay, resulting in a backlog of awards.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although the constitution prohibits such actions, the law gives security personnel broad powers of search and seizure. The law allows warrantless searches of a person, vehicle, ship, or boat if a police officer has good reason to be suspicious. Police on occasion were accused of conducting searches without warrants.

In the ZOSOs the government began taking biometrics from persons it temporarily detained. Security forces were able to apprehend wide swaths of the male population in ZOSOs under broad arrest authority. NGOs contended that ZOSOs became a subterfuge for the government to capture biometric data indiscriminately from the public without consent. Reports estimated that as many as 6,000 persons were affected.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, generally effective judicial protection, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.


The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 49 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.


There were no government restrictions on academic freedom.

The Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica barred certain lyrics and music videos, including songs referring to violent sex or violence against women, children, and other vulnerable persons, and expunged lyrics deemed inappropriate to broadcast.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.


Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government handles each potential asylum seeker administratively on an individual basis. The government can grant a form of limited status to those with citizenship in a commonwealth country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: Since the 2016 national elections, the country held by-elections in October 2017 and in March to fill four seats in parliament. The Jamaica Labour Party maintained a majority in parliament of 33 of 63 members in the House of Representatives. Observers judged all recent elections to be transparent, free, and fair.

Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, and it remained a significant problem of public concern. Media and civil society organizations continued to criticize the government for being slow and at times reluctant to prosecute corruption cases.

Corruption: It was unclear if the National Integrity Commission was investigating the state-owned petroleum refinery, Petrojam, for possible breaches of procurement procedures, cost overruns, missing funds, and the payment of exorbitant consulting fees, which were widely reported in the press. In July the Minister of Science, Technology, and Energy and three Petrojam board members resigned, and the prime minister transferred the energy portfolio into the Office of the Prime Minister temporarily. There were no official charges.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires that parliamentarians, public officials in prescribed positions, and civil servants earning 3.5 million Jamaican dollars (JMD) ($26,500) or more per year disclose their income, liabilities, and assets annually. There were no reports of noncompliance or that the government sanctioned anyone who failed to disclose.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Public Defender investigates abuses of constitutional rights and engages with claimants in a process to seek remediation from the government. The public defender is not authorized to appear in court but may retain attorneys to represent clients on the office’s behalf. The office cannot investigate cases affecting national defense or actions investigable by a court of law. As a commission of parliament, this organization’s reach and effect hinges on the political will associated with the case. Parliament can ignore the commission’s findings or demur from recommended action. This limited the overall efficacy of the organization.

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