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Krystal with the scars of Armadale with her recently born child.

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A survivor remembers one of the darkest days in Jamaica’s history

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 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, which reminded her of a childhood in rural Jamaica, Krystal 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 catcalls by inmates inside the ‘Cottage Dorm’ broke the silence. “They were yelling at me, ‘Yuh 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. That dorm was built to hold only five persons.

“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 seven bunk beds. “I realised 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’ve sent me to prison’.”

Krystal was sent to Armadale after being convicted 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 was diligent about education as she struggled not to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who died with a notorious ‘bad-gyal’ reputation when Krystal was an infant.

“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 restart 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 her arrival, she expected to start classes, until Krystal discovered ‘lockdown’ – the 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 lockdown for two weeks.”

Krystal was confused.

“No one was answering any questions,” she says. “The wardresses slammed the grilles when you talked to them. They were rough, like bullies.”

She didn’t eat for three days as the food was cold and the girls were forced to eat with their 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 beaten 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.”


According to the report by the commissioner of the Armadale enquiry, by May 22, the Cottage Dorm inmates had been on lockdown for three 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 member of the police team summoned to quell the disturbance 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, ‘Mi 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 later 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 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 scars on each of Krystal’s arms bear 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. It has given me a purpose,” says Krystal, who is the mother of a baby.

The Gleaner is presenting this series in partnership with UNICEF Jamaica which supports government and non-governmental efforts to improve a range of rehabilitation and reintegration services for children who come into conflict with the law. Follow UNICEF on Twitter: @UNICEF_Jamaica and like UNICEF Jamaica on Facebook.


  • Knows it all says:

    From tragedy comes triumph,

  • Anonymous says:

    so sad, my heart feels for them.

  • Anonymous says:

    :sorry This Story brings back memories…When I was a teen my mother sent me back to Jamaica, Even thou I was born there I did not know the place or remember the family. I was all alone! I sweared to God as I got off that plane I was going to kill myself because I had no idea they were sending me to Jamaica. I stayed with family that ill treated me I had to start fending for myself to find food. I had a Aunt that would not leave me the hell alone and would tell my mother all kind of lies and bullshit about me. Oneday They planup with this licky licky police woman to teach me a lesson and she came to the house to get me to transfer me to Glenhope Childrens home.
    I had never cried so much in my life until that day. The same things Krystal describe in her story went on at Glenhope childrens home girls fooling around with each other, Mistreatment of the mentally ill from staff and peers, no decent food etc. From I step foot in there I said I have to get out of this shit so one day The gate was open and I made a run for it like Usain Bolt I don’t know where I was headed or was I that familiar with the areas of Jamaica I was gone with the wind and then everybody started wondering if I was dead but I made it I’m alive!
    That’s part of my story….

  • Met says:

    wow…can you email me some more details about the home etc?

  • Anonymous says:

    i remember this place like it was yesterday, and i was there over 25 years ago and it was just like Crystal said minus the raping. i too ran away frm there and i was on a plane in two days. but i guess it worst over the years

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