Fri | Dec 4, 2020

Editorial | Gov’t must speak on Sykes report, INDECOM powers

Published:Sunday | November 15, 2020 | 12:10 AM

The grilling Jamaica faced last week at the United Nations about conditions in its prisons and the high numbers of police homicides remind us of the administration’s continued silence on its intention for Chief Justice Sykes’ report on the treatment of mentally ill people in jails, as well as Justice Minister Delroy Chuck’s retreat from giving prosecutorial powers for INDECOM (the Independent Commission of Investigations), the body that investigates claims of abuse of power by cops, soldiers and prison guards.

The UN matter also draws attention to the long-standing proposal for merging the Police Service Commission (PSC), the constitutional body responsible for disciplining and promoting senior police officers, and the Police Civilian Oversight Authority (PCOA), which is supposed to monitor whether the constabulary operates in accordance with policy. The latest promise, delivered in August, was that this merger would be completed by the third quarter of 2021. But, as this newspaper noted recently, that timetable is unlikely, given the conditions imposed by the Constitution for amending the section that establishes the PSC and sets out its functions. That process, which hasn’t started, requires a minimum of six months.

At the peer review by a UN Human Rights Council working group, members reprised a long-standing concern about the state of Jamaica’s prisons and lock-ups, including “life-threatening conditions” faced by inmates. They, however, didn’t specifically mention the report by INDECOM in March on the 146 mentally ill people who were languishing in prisons – some for decades – because they were“unfit to plead”. Nor did they specifically reference the case of Noel Chambers, the octogenarian, who, after four decades, died in prison, his body emaciated and sore. Chambers was never convicted of a crime. He wasn’t mentally fit to answer the charges against him.

ESTABLISHED COMMITTEE

In the face of the public outcry over Chambers’ fate, Chief Justice Sykes established a committee of senior members of the Bench, lawyers, health experts and officials of detention facilities to review the crisis and to make recommendations for its mitigation. They were to ensure that there are no more Noel Chambers. Some of their proposals will require changes to legislation, but the committee listed a number of actions for urgent attention. These include:

• The designation of a forensic psychiatric facility for mentally ill people who are in conflict with the law, to replace the Bellevue Hospital, which hasn’t functioned in that capacity for four decades. The absence of such a facility has meant that people who are detained “at the pleasure of the court” are held in prisons.

• A simplification of the requirements for determining who is unfit to plead, and giving the courts greater discretion to divert people with mental illnesses to care and treatment outside of prison, and better suited for their circumstance.

• Finding a suitable psychiatric facility for the recommended purpose is unlikely to be easy, and creating a purpose-built one may not be feasible in the short term. But, as we suggested previously, it can’t be overly difficult to convert a portion of the sprawling Bellevue compound to a forensic psychiatric hospital – if there is the will.

That many Jamaicans might question whether that will exists is understandable.

In the weeks since Chief Justice Sykes caused the report to be published, there have been no substantive comments on its findings by senior government officials. Neither has there been a statement on if and how the administration intended to proceed on it.

Further, the Government hasn’t declared a final position on whether INDECOM will be given the power to prosecute misbehaving security forces members , which the courts have said it doesn’t have.

A parliamentary committee had recommended that the law be changed to give the commission that authority. The proposal was embraced by Minister Chuck, but he has since resiled from it, supposedly on the grounds that the director of public prosecutions (DPP) now has sufficient staff to attend to cases against members of the security forces. We believe that Mr Chuck’s position attacks the periphery, rather than the substance, of the argument, which is of a dedicated authority in which Jamaicans have trust, pursuing actions that citizens believe to be in their interest.

The administration must also renew a serious public discussion on the PSC-PCOA merger, including on the merits of the idea and when it can now be done.