Rising from the Ashes of Armadale: A Survivor Speaks
* This is the third article in a series of stories for Child Month, focusing on some of Jamaica’s most vulnerable adolescents and young people. All names have been changed/withheld for confidentiality.
On the afternoon of May 6, 2009, sixteen-year-old Krystal was anxiously peering out the window of a police car, as it pulled up at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St. Ann. Greeted with familiar sights of a childhood in rural Jamaica, she smiled, comforted.
Four years later, the memories are still vivid. “I was excited when I got to Armadale,” Krystal says. “It was so beautiful – this big flat land, with perfect, green grass. I thought to myself, ‘I can play on that grass,’” she recalls, with a slight grin.
A calm quiet accompanied the pristine landscape. Krystal was eager with anticipation. “I was relieved,” she says. “I was going to be more focused, no distractions, no fighting. I was going to get my subjects, get a skill, save up and go to college. I had it all planned out.”
As Krystal walked across the facility, a slew of cat calls by inmates inside the ‘Cottage Dorm’ broke the silence. “They were yelling at me, ‘you look good, baby!’ and it felt nice. I felt popular, like I wouldn’t have to do anything to make friends.”
The thrill was short-lived. “The wardress gave me a sheet and a dress. They were both dirty.” She was taken to the ‘Office Dorm’, a severely cramped space housing 22 other girls.
“When I stepped inside, I was surprised. The girls were half-naked or totally naked. They were dancing and touching each other. I had never seen two girls together in my life. I thought, ‘Oh God, I am going to get raped.’”
She scanned the crowded room, counting only 7 bunk beds. “I realized we had to sleep with each other. It was a shock. The wardress told me to stay on the bed and not to leave.” Krystal’s disillusionment set in. “I said to myself, ‘they sent me to prison.’”
Krystal was sent to Armadale on a charge of unlawful wounding. “I wasn’t a perfect girl,” she admits. “Like everyone else, I made mistakes.” Her life became increasingly troubled after her grandmother, the cash-strapped sole caregiver for Krystal and her three siblings, told her at age 15 she could no longer afford school.
The sudden withdrawal of support was life-changing.
Young Krystal struggled not to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who died with a notorious ‘bad gyal’ reputation when Krystal was an infant, but she was diligent about education. “I enjoyed school and I was doing well,” she says.
The relationship with her grandmother deteriorated. “She was frustrated. She could not manage all of us,” Krystal says. “She stopped giving me food to eat, and started locking me out of the house.” Krystal moved in with a neighbour. Often going without food and desperate to re-start school, she began exchanging sex for money with different men.
The money she earned put her back in school, but her self-esteem was eroding. “It got too much,” she says, of the nightly sex work. “I felt like a whore.” By the time Krystal landed in Armadale, she knew she needed help. She was convinced she would find it there.
The day after arrival she expected to start classes, until Krystal discovered ‘lock down’: total confinement within the dorm.“I couldn’t wait for morning to go outside,” she says. But the girls told me I couldn’t leave. New girls were put on lock down for two weeks.”
Krystal was confused. “No one was answering any questions,” she says. “The wardresses slammed the grills when you talked to them. They were rough, like bullies.” She didn’t eat for three days. “The food was cold. We didn’t get forks, we had to eat with our hands.”
“There was one toilet for all 23 girls,” she recalls with a pained expression. “It was locked in the night. We had to hold it, or use the one bucket for everyone. The bathroom was open in the day but it was always blocked up, and sometimes there was no water.”
Krystal spent the days inside the dorm reading books. She felt the growing tension and agitation. She witnessed brutal rapes. “There was one girl who got beat and raped night after night. She was mentally ill. She would scream out ‘rape! rape!’ Everybody [in the facility] could hear. They knew what was happening, but no one did anything.”
On May 22, according to the report by the Commissioner of the Armadale Enquiry, the Cottage Dorm inmates had been on lock down for 3 weeks straight. A handful of girls led an escape attempt, creating a major commotion. Angry inmates hurled expletives and waste matter as they tried to get out. One of the police officers summoned to quell the situation threw a tear gas canister into the dorm, igniting a fire.
“The dorm went dark,” Krystal says, reliving the tragic night. “I ran to the window. My eyes were burning, I couldn’t breathe. I felt the heat, but I couldn’t see the fire. There was thick smoke. People were fighting each other, they pulled and pushed to get out the window.”
“When I was on the ground outside, I looked up and saw a light. I said ‘me reach heaven now’. I thought I had died. Everything was silent in my head. When I turned, the noise rushed to me. Everyone was panicking.”
Krystal ran inside a police car and frantically tried to use the radio. Her skin was searing. “When I looked in the rear-view mirror, my face was totally black. I looked at my hands, they were black and white. The skin was hanging off, the flesh was white.”
“I went crazy,” she says. “I started running around the field… not going anywhere, just running. I saw Marcia. The skin on her face blew off. Everybody was crying. Everybody looked like zombies. I saw two other girls, they were burned from head to toe.”
Seven Armadale inmates perished: five girls died that night, and two eventually succumbed to their injuries. For most people, they are statistics. For Krystal, they were real people.
“I see all of them so clearly in my head,” she says. “I see Janet always reading her Bible. I see Keisha being lazy. I hear Marcia’s loud mouth.” She chuckles, then becomes quiet. “Patrice just wanted to see her father. She kept talking about what she would do when she got out. Natalie (who died) was the nicest, kindest person I knew. She was brave, but fragile.”
Most of her fellow inmates were at Armadale for ‘uncontrollable’ behaviour, not criminal charges. As strangers became friends, Krystal understood that the girls were deeply disturbed by an absence of love, guidance or support in their lives. They needed help.
The sleeve of scars on each of Krystal’s arms bears permanent testament to an ordeal she wants to prevent other children from going through. As her emotional scars slowly heal, she is finding a voice to speak out about the tragedy and to seek support for the survivors.
With help from the Griffin Trust, HelpJa Children and UNICEF, Krystal is leading an effort to convene a survivors support group. “What happened at Armadale changed the way I think,” she says. “It has given me a purpose.”