Sun | Dec 8, 2019

Prisoners denied proper psychiatric care, says doc

Published:Friday | November 8, 2019 | 12:30 AMJason Cross/ Gleaner Writer

The Government has been criticised for its failure to provide high-quality psychiatric care to inmates at the island’s maximum-security prisons, which have been condemned by its chief medical officer as obsolete.

Speaking at Wednesday’s launch of a study titled, ‘Through the Cracks – Report on Mental Illness Behind Bars’, Dr Donna-Michelle Royer-Powe, director of medical services within the Department of Correctional Services, raised concerns about the inadequate attention received by prisoners.

Royer-Powe argued that mentally ill prisoners would likely be in better health today had Jamaica agreed to proposed deal offered by the United Kingdom government in 2015 to part-fund the construction of a state-of-the-art facility.

“There is nobody that is only employed to the Department of Correctional Services as department psychiatrist. What we have now are four sessional psychiatrists,” she said at yesterday’s launch, spearheaded by human-rights group Stand Up For Jamaica, in partnership with the European Union. The launch was held at the University of the West Indies Regional Headquarters in St Andrew.

“A new building definitely would have helped and definitely having a forensic section. That forensic facility needs to be a multi-level one, where you have persons who are extremely dangerous housed in one section and persons who are mentally ill but functional being offered rehabilitation classes and being offered the same privileges that the regular population has,” she told The Gleaner.

Royer-Powe also said that there was no psychiatric wing at any custodial facilities.

There are 239 mentally ill inmates at the Tower Street and St Catherine adult correctional centres in Kingston and Spanish Town, respectively.

Of the roughly 1,632 inmates housed at Tower Street, 159 prisoners have been determined mentally ill. It has been concluded that 74 of them are unfit to plead.

Over at the St Catherine facility, which holds around 830 inmates, 85 were deemed unfit to plead up to September 30.

Royer-Powe said that in some cases, individuals are declared unfit to plead, but remain behind bars for up to four decades.

“We have found a few cases that are there. People are now advocating and looking out for them. The Department of Correctional Services cannot take them to court without a date. What is happening now is that Legal Aid has been going to court getting dates for them and taking the matter back to the courts,” she said.

Five months ago, The Gleaner had learnt that more than 300 mentally ill people were serving indefinite prison sentences or had simply fallen off the court list, many languishing in limbo for decades.

The revelation came in the wake of a report about ex-cop Walter Blackstock, 61, who had spent 31 years behind bars without standing trial and having not entered a guilty plea because he was deemed unfit to plead when he was arrested on a murder charge in 1987. He was finally freed this summer.

Carla Gullotta, who heads Stand Up for Jamaica, said it was important that Jamaica protect its most vulnerable people.

“It is a work in progress. It is the opening of a dialogue, but also a call to action,” she said of the report. “We in our human-rights group are ready to lobby, fight and struggle to partner and make changes.”

jason.cross@gleanerjm.com