Who remembers the seven girls who died in Armadale?


The children of Jamaica are in crisis, especially the girls: “The Jamaican child is, more often than not, poor, barely educated, vulnerable to paedophiles, exposed to acts of crime and violence, at risk of being raped, trafficked, and of becoming pregnant. This, according to social workers and child rights activists who insist the State has failed its children.” Girls and boys share some of the crisis. The entire crisis and each part and element of the crisis targets girls.

Today is May 22, 2011, a mere two years since seven young girls were killed in a fire, on May 22, 2009, at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, in Alexandria, St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. Seven girls were burned to death. Five died the night of the fire: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, all 16 years old; and Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15. Later, two more died from the fire: Georgina Saunders, 16, Stephanie Smith, 17. There were 23 girls in a small space. Sixteen managed to crawl through the fire, to the narrow windows, and out.

Armadale was shut down. An inquiry was launched. The Armadale Enquiry Commission met for over nine months. Its report roundly condemns the government. The fire was set by a spark from a tear gas canister, tossed in the room by a guard. The straw bedding ignited.

On March 2, 2010, Prime Minister Bruce Golding reported to Parliament. The Jamaican press reported then that the government “accepts `ultimate responsibility’ for Armadale.”

What qualifies as `acceptance’? What is `ultimate responsibility’?

In February of this year, the government accepted “financial liability.” This meant the State paid survivors. How much is a life worth? What is the value of pain and suffering? Who decides? Individual payment “is largely dependent on the extent of the injuries sustained by each girl.” The State says it is difficult `negotiating’ the settlement because many of the girls are in rural areas and because all of the girls are trying to put their lives together, are trying to live with dignity.

The payment is for the fire damage. Not for the inhumane conditions at Armadale at the time of the fire. The payment is for the event, the specific event, not for the situation. Nor for the `erosion of moral and ethical standards.” That remains intact.

The pain that continues is not only the pain of memory, of loss, of recognition. It also the pain that is administered by the State to children in prison every single day.

Children today are still in lock up, and often lockdowns, often in adult prisons. As of last month, more than 100 children were being held in adult cells.

Today is May 22, 2011, two years since the Armadale fire. There were no proclamations from the State, there were no memorials in the leading Jamaican papers. If there were ceremonies, they were private. The State has `accepted ultimate responsibility.’ It has washed its hands and declares them, and itself, clean. Who remembers the seven girls who burned to death in Armadale, and for how long will we remember?


(Photo Credit: The Jamaica Observer)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.