Tue | Jul 7, 2020

Editorial | Hold prison boss, court registrars criminally liable

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2020 | 12:00 AM

IF, INDEED, the cliché about the definition of madness is true, then the folks in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems are crazier than the mentally ill people who keep getting lost in the prison system. They continuously do the same thing without noticing or even caring. It seems that nothing changes.

This newspaper has a cure for the problem. They should be held criminally liable for their shortcomings, including being charged, at least for manslaughter, when between-the-cracks inmates die in jail and a case can be made that their neglect, or other failings on the job, contributed to the death. Further, the prosecution of such offences, with regard to officials in the correctional system, or police officers, should be the responsibility of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), in keeping with powers that Parliament should confer on the agency, as well as its amendment to other relevant laws.

Given the doctrine of the separation of powers, the courts should also determine procedures for disciplining judicial officers, including registrars of courts, when they fail to fulfil their obligations to citizens.

With respect to this group, and their oversight of remanded defendants who are unfit to plead, the accountability must begin with transparency. Chief Justice Bryan Sykes should, forthwith, order the publication, in the press and on the Supreme Court’s website, of the monthly status reports on such prisoners the commissioner of corrections, former army officer Lieutenant Colonel Gary Rowe, is supposed to submit to the courts.

We make these recommendations in light of last week’s disclosure by INDECOM’s commissioner, Terrence Williams, of the death, in prison, last January, of 81-year-old Noel Chambers, his emaciated body riddled with bedsores and bug bites. Mr Chambers was in jail for 40 years but was never convicted of a crime. His mental state made him unfit to plead, and the ‘system’ forgot about him.

Noel Chambers’ case isn’t the only one. According to Mr Williams, at the time of his agency’s review, there were 146 people with mental illnesses, and apparently unable to plead, in the correctional system. At least 13 have been there for more than 30 years.

NOT A SECRET

None of this, of course, is a secret. A cursory search of this newspaper’s archives will produce several stories in recent years of prisoners being released after decades without trial because of the effort of human-rights lawyers. Among them, a year ago, was Walter Blackstock, a 61-year-old schizophrenic and ex-policeman who was in jail for 32 years. He was originally charged for murder.

Also released in 2019 was Robert Robin, who languished for 17 years without trial after his arrest for simple larceny. He was accused of stealing yams.

In 2015, Delroy McIntosh was released after 25 years of incarceration, without being tried, for possession of a ganja ‘spliff’. At the time of Mr McIntosh’s release, half a decade after The Gleaner first reported on his case, ownership of two ounces for marijuana for personal use was legal.

On the face of it, people haven’t been doing their jobs.

Section 25D of the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act obligates the commissioner of corrections to, each month, provide to the court a report on the condition of defendants on remand because of their inability to plead. These reports are to be reviewed by, as the case may be, judges of the Supreme Court or parish court, who, based on their contents, “shall give such directions as he thinks fit”.

Further, the law requires that the registrars of these courts register these remanded persons and “bring to the attention of the court … any failure to submit a report” within seven days of it becoming due. The court, in such circumstances, can require that the commissioner of corrections explain the failure, including being made to do so under oath in court.

That sounds serious. Unfortunately, that is as far as it goes. The law provides no sanctions, except, perhaps, in the case of the commissioner of corrections, the embarrassment of being called before a judge to explain his tardiness.

It does nothing to a court registrar who may have been complicit in remanded prisoners falling between the cracks when they fail to report tardy commissioners of corrections.

That is why, in the case of the Department of Correctional Services, whose officers are already within the purview of INDECOM’s oversight, Mr Williams’ agency should be given the authority to prosecute a malingering boss who fails to fulfil his legal obligation. With regard to court registrars, Chief Justice Bryan Sykes should tell us how he intends to hold to account those who don’t do their jobs.