(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — The Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) is reporting that there are at least seven people who remain in the island’s prisons having already spent 40 or more years each, despite not being convicted for any crime.
They are among 146 people now in prisons — at the governor general’s discretion, the court’s discretion, or because they were deemed unfit to plead — after being accused of various crimes.
In a scathing criticism of the system yesterday, INDECOM Commissioner Terrence Williams charged that the mentally ill represent a vulnerable group in the prison population and are in need of urgent attention.
Listing several of the cases, Williams paid particular attention to that of Noel Chambers, who was incarcerated at Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in February 1980, after he was deemed unfit to plead to a murder charge.
Chambers died in the prison recently after spending 40 years without being tried, despite being deemed fit to plead on two occasions.
In his report for the first quarter of this year, Williams charged that at the time of his death Chambers was in a deplorable physical condition.
“His clothing was filthy and his body showed evidence of chronic emaciation. He was covered with what appeared to be vermin bites, live bedbugs, and he showed signs of having bed sores,” Williams said during a digital media briefing.
He noted that Chambers was not an isolated case. The INDECOM report also listed the case of another inmate who was identified only by his initials “LF”, who has been incarcerated for 19 years, at the governor general’s pleasure, for the offences of housebreaking and larceny as well as assault at common law.
According to INDECOM, LF’s psychiatric condition is fit to plead, but the last listed court date was 2001.
In another case, “MB” has been incarcerated for 31 years at the governor general’s pleasure for an offence of burglary with intent. MB was also listed as fit to plead during his last psychiatric examination. His last listed court date was 1989.
“These detentions awaiting trial appear to exceed the maximum sentences following a conviction or the prevailing tariff for similar offences,” said Williams.
“These cases highlight systemic failures in reviewing indeterminate detention. It is a clear breach of the constitutional rights of persons who are detained in inhumane conditions and/or for an extended period without trial,” added Williams.
The INDECOM boss argued that the situation of mentally ill people detained in prisons, and in particular those deemed unfit to plead, is a matter which should be concerning to all parties responsible for the care, detention, and safeguarding of citizens in the custody of the State.
He said the cases highlighted, and the wider situation, are indicative of a disregard for local legislation and human rights conventions which are unambiguous in the matter.
The INDECOM report, which will be submitted to Parliament, has recommended several changes that the agency said would address the root causes of the issues.
Among the recommendations are:
• The passing of legislation that people held under the governor general’s pleasure be automatically held under the court’s pleasure. The onus should not be on the detainee to apply for this change;
• An examination by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions of all the cases for those unfit to plead to determine whether or not there is still a viable prosecution available against these accused individuals;
• Putting systems in place to ensure the timely review of unfit to plead cases, such as the establishment of a review board, to ensure re-enlisting by the court when the inmate may be fit to plead;
• The reinstatement of the forensic psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital or the establishment of a similar type of facility to house those deemed unfit to plead. Such an institution should be properly staffed with varying specialists and areas for recreation designated, all of which will aid in the treatment provided;
• The hiring of full-time psychiatrists and nurses to ensure adequate treatment is administered and the duty of care upheld thorough training of correctional officers to lend support to the psychiatric staff;
• Where there is no family forthcoming to assume responsibility, strict care ought to be taken by the correctional staff to ensure the correction rules are followed; and
• Upon their release there should be a written apology by the State and compensation awarded for the breach of their constitutional rights. In the event of death these remedies should be awarded to the family.