Justice stalled - Multimillion-dollar project to free mentally ill inmates fettered
A project that was rolled out three years ago to extricate hundreds of mentally ill persons who are languishing inside Jamaica’s prison system, some of them for decades, has stalled, with only a handful being released.
The revelation comes amid public outrage over a report by the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) about the death of 81-year-old Noel Chambers, who spent 40 years in prison awaiting trial for murder.
Since the release of the INDECOM report, the judiciary has publicly acknowledged that several state institutions, including the courts, failed in their duty to safeguard Chambers’ right to life, liberty and a fair trial within a reasonable time.
Under the project started by the Legal Aid Council in late 2017, a team of 24 lawyers and six administrative staff were trained and dispatched to the prisons to kick-start the legal process for the removal of 313 mentally ill persons incarcerated largely for minor infractions at the Tower Street and St Catherine adult correctional centres and Fort Augusta prison.
It has already cost taxpayers nearly $5 million, according to Hugh Faulkner, executive director of the Legal Aid Council.
However, while suggesting that the initiative was proof that attempts were made to address the issue of mentally ill persons being housed in penal institutions, Justice Minister Delroy Chuck was at a loss to explain why the programme failed to detect the Chambers case and bring it to public attention earlier.
“What is clear is that I don’t understand how this project did not pick up a Noel Chambers. This is the question I am asking: Why was Noel Chambers not picked up when the project was being done?” Chuck questioned.
“It could have averted several other cases,” he asserted.
The justice minister acknowledged that so far, he has not been furnished with any answers to “a lot of the questions I have asked”.
Chambers was incarcerated in February 1980 after he was declared unfit to plead and remained in prison since then, even though, according to the INDECOM report, he twice received ‘fitness for trial certificates’ from different psychiatrists.
A MAJOR FLAW
Faulkner disclosed that the project team did locate Chambers during their prison visits, but could not intervene in his case because he had already secured the services of noted human-rights attorney Nancy Anderson.
However, he told The Sunday Gleaner that the team discovered a major flaw with the elderly man’s case.
“He was wrongly listed [in prison records] as being held at the governor general’s pleasure,” Faulkner said of the sentence imposed by the courts up to 1975, following the conviction of a mentally ill person.
Anderson said based on her perusal of prison records and discussions with her client, she concluded that he had been convicted of murder and went about trying to win his freedom by petitioning Governor General Sir Patrick Allen.
Similar petitions, she said, were also filed on behalf of two other detainees, including ex-cop Walter Blackstock, who had spent 31 years in prison awaiting trial for murder after he was initially declared unfit to plead.
Anderson said prosecutors abandoned the case against Blackstock following an application made to the Circuit Court after the governor general indicated, in response to the petition, that the ex-cop had not been convicted of any crime.
Allen’s response to Chambers, the attorney said, “did not lead me anywhere”.
“If I had been told by the governor general or seen in the file [at DCS] that he had not been convicted, I would have tried that procedure with Mr Chambers. But I was misled,” Anderson said, insisting that she embarked on a wrong course of action because of “incorrect information” from the Department of Correctional Services (DCS).
Just over half of the mentally ill persons who make up the 4,000-plus prison population are incarcerated for minor crimes such as assault and damage to property, offences that are prosecuted in the parish courts, the project found.
“In other words, even if they pleaded guilty, they would have been out of the institutions long ago. Maybe most of them would not have been given a prison sentence,” said Chuck.
One of the mentally ill detainees to win his freedom through the project is Leslie Spaulding. He was facing a charge of assault occasioning bodily harm for attacking his mother in the community of Bath, St Thomas, 23 years ago.
Spaulding was freed by the St Thomas Parish Court on January 29 last year after a judge insisted that he should not have to spend another day in custody for an offence that ordinarily would be sent to mediation.
NOWHERE TO GO
Four other detainees with mental illnesses were freed under a precursor project undertaken by the Legal Aid Council between 2015 and 2017 to have about 30 cases that had fallen off the list restored in the parish courts.
But the project has effectively been placed on pause, largely due to the refusal by some families to accept mentally challenged relatives facing criminal charges, and the fact that they cannot be accommodated at Bellevue Hospital, the largest facility in Jamaica for the treatment of the mentally ill.
Faulkner disclosed that dozens of court-ready case files are now in the Legal Aid Council’s database, but pointed out that where a mentally ill person is declared unfit to plead, the courts will only release them to an institution or individual.
“So, we realised that it doesn’t make any sense to flood the courts with all these applications unless you have Bellevue willing to take them, an institution willing to take them or someone willing to take them,” he explained.
The executive director of the Legal Aid Council cited, as an example, the case of a St Ann man who has been in custody since 1977 awaiting trial on a charge of wounding.
“We think the man should have been released, but the family members said they hadn’t forgiven him and refused to take him,” he stated.“Since the 2017-18 fiscal year, Bellevue has taken none. Zero.”
Close to 500 of the more than 750 persons at Bellevue Hospital can be discharged, but have nowhere to go, according to figures from the health ministry.
“Yes, there are some concerns, without a doubt, and there is a need to do something. As a country, we have talked about it for many years and not done nearly enough,” admitted Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.