Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Stand up for human rights - Non-profit launches campaign to fund legal representation for prisoners incarcerated without trial

Published:Saturday | July 18, 2020 | 12:14 AMJamila Litchmore/Special Projects and Engagement Editor
Human Rights Advocate Alexis Goffe (right) created the GoFundMe campaign on June 17.
Carla Gullotta, executive director of Stand Up For Jamaica.
A correctional officer manning the pedestrian gate at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in downtown Kingston.
‘Freedom time’, was all George Williams (centre) could manage to say as he emerged from the St Catherine Parish Court in Spanish Town accompanied by his niece, Pamela Green, and attorney Isat Buchanan on Wednesday, June 24 after a Circuit Court judge upheld a notice of abandonment in his murder case.
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Human rights non-profit Stand Up For Jamaica has launched a campaign to cover the legal costs of prisoners incarcerated without trial in the Jamaican penal system.

With a focus on the mentally ill who are lost in the system, the effort is multi-pronged. It involves emergency action, namely securing the prisoner’s release and also looks at creating long term change in the approach to those with mental illnesses. Above all else, it is aiming to create a real impact.

“We are trying to assist as many mentally ill as we can,” Carla Gullotta, executive director of Stand Up For Jamaica, told The Gleaner.

Spurred by the January to March 2020 report from the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), the campaign, launched on crowdfunding site GoFundMe, was created June 17 by human rights advocate Alexis Goffe. Up to press time, it has raised US$7,595 of its US$12,000 goal from 47 donors.

More than 140 mentally ill people are being detained at the court’s pleasure, some for more than four decades without facing a trial, according to the recently published INDECOM report.

Among them was 81-year-old Noel Chambers who was locked up for 40 years on a murder charge and deemed unfit to plead.

Chambers’ family tried relentlessly for years to have him released into their care. However, despite officially being passed fit to plead several times over his four-decade incarceration at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, he was never brought before a judge.

He died in January 2020, his emaciated body bearing bedsores and bites from bedbugs.

The conditions surrounding his death, detailed in the report, was a pivotal impetus for Stand Up For Jamaica. What initially began as research and lobbying various stakeholders eventually saw the non-profit spearheading the effort to secure the release of those mentally ill prisoners incarcerated without trial or for a term longer than their sentence.

“When the INDECOM report, which was coming out with the death of poor Mr Chambers, we decided that we do it on our own,” said Gullotta.

“We have been hiring Isat Buchanan, who is a great attorney, and we started to take them out. We already got one out in two weeks, and that was, for example, showing that if you want to do it, you don’t need to wait, you just do it, and it is possible,” said Gullotta.

With the help of Buchanan, pro bono, the organisation helped to secure the release of 71-year-old George Williams who had spent 50 years in custody without trial.

Having been able to put together a team of attorneys, they’ve also hired Psychiatrist Dr Geoffrey Walcott to fulfil an essential requirement – the psychiatric assessment.

The work doesn’t end when the prisoner is released. Assisting families is also integral.

“If a family is willing to take back the person, you cannot leave the family alone,” said Gullotta.

Stand Up For Jamaica has been providing much-needed support to the family of Williams.

“We have been providing care packages with food, sanitisers, soap, shampoo, toilet paper body lotion, toothpaste, all sort of items, and try to give a contribution to the family,” said Gullotta.

They also assist with the process of filing compensation claims and facilitate psychiatric follow-ups and medicinal needs.

“The psychiatrist is in touch with the local health department; we are in touch with the probation officer, which is still in charge. We try to build a little network around him to assist him. We want to be sure that he is seeing the psychologist; we want to be sure that he’s taking his medication. We want to be sure that he is comfortable, but at the same time, we really care a lot about the family [as well],” said Gullotta.

PLEASED WITH SUPPORT

Noting the costs associated with the process, Gullotta says she is pleased with the support the campaign has received.

“It’s not doing so bad,” says Gullotta.

A primary concern now is the number of prisoners requiring their assistance.

“We started to receive from DCS (Department of Correctional Services) the list of others. Last Monday, we were up to 33 more, and we know that according to the INDECOM report, there should be a total of 146. So the expenses are going to be sky-high,” said Gullotta.

To aid the process, she is requesting that families of mentally ill inmates make contact with the organisation.

“If I cannot reach the families, the inmate cannot sign his statement because he is considered unfit to plead. So if it’s not the family that’s taking action, we cannot start the trial,” said Gullotta.

While focusing on the present challenges, Stand Up For Jamaica is also drafting a proposal aimed at changing how we deal with mental illness.

“If somebody is mentally ill, they should not be locked up in a prison. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not the place for the person to be. Correctional services which have around 4,600 inmates have one psychiatrist, for everybody. The mentally ill and the ones who are not officially mentally ill so one psychiatrist cannot serve the whole population and specifically cannot assist in any form the mentally ill,” said Gullotta.

She notes the challenges the current system presents for the detainees, warders and other inmates. Gullotta would like to see Jamaica move towards prevention and assessment, helping individuals at the sign of mental challenges.

“If that person could be assessed, at the very beginning of his pathology, [then] his pathology can be cured in a much easier way than if you wait until the situation [is worse],” said Gullotta.

The need is also great for better facilities and approaches.

“For those that are a danger to themselves and other, there must be some institution where they can stay and be cured,” said Gullotta. “For the one who has [lighter] issues and they are peaceful, they are not a danger for their family or community, the choice should be to keep them in the family and build around them a network which can do regular [checks and follow-ups]."

To donate to the Stand Up For Jamaica legal representation fund, visit gofundme.com/f/legal-representation-fund-for-jamaican-prisoners. To learn more or contact Stand Up For Jamaica, visit standupforjamaica.org or call (876) 948-8973. Have a good story you’d like to share? Email us at goodheart@gleanerjm.com.

jamila.litchmore@gleanerjm.com