Sick and incarcerated - JFJ taking legal action as concerns mount over claims of lack of access to healthcare in prisons
Human rights group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) says it is pursuing a growing number of lawsuits against the state involving inmates who were barred from receiving critical medical attention while behind bars.
JFJ Executive Director Rodje Malcolm said the complaints continue to pour in from inmates and their relatives as the island’s inhumane lock-ups and detention centres continue to be plagued by diseases, some of which have resulted in at least two deaths this year.
According to Malcolm, inmates suffering from HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer and communicable illnesses are oftentimes neglected by prison officials, who use the inmates’ desperate need for treatment and medication as a means of punishment.
“People are effectively at the mercy of the correctional services who, unfortunately, our information is that the adherence is low, and who do not respect that right to medical treatment, even when afforded by the court,” Malcolm told The Sunday Gleaner last week.
“You have limited adherence to the right to healthcare and medical treatment that all human beings have inside the facility,” he charged. “Medication is oftentimes inconsistently provided, and sometimes, where the treatment requires off-site visits, those are often inconsistent, infrequent and subject to delays.”
Malcolm’s statement follows a study by the National Family Planning Board earlier this year that warned that the HIV prevalence rate inside the island’s prisons more than doubled what it was a decade ago, and is almost four times higher than the national average.
HIGH SYPHILIS RATE
The study, which reported on findings from 726 inmates, noted that there was a syphilis prevalence rate of 4.5 per cent, and that almost half of the inmates were married or had been living with a partner before incarceration. Some inmates, however, contracted HIV while in prison.
“We’ve had persons who have contracted communicable diseases like HIV from sexual abuse while inside prisons, and that illness goes untreated and only gets treated when we secure their release,” he said.
“There are also persons who sustained serious and life-threatening injuries while in custody that require urgent medical attention and who don’t get that medical attention. They sometimes end up crippled or with permanent health issues as a result,” he said, noting that health issues inside the prisons affect prison officials as well as persons who are remanded but are later acquitted of criminal charges at trial.
Two Fridays ago, one inmate at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Facility in Kingston contacted The Sunday Gleaner complaining that he was locked in an isolated cell without medication. Days later, however, he told the newspaper that he was seen by medical professionals, and that he was receiving his medication.
This was preceded by cries from incarcerated former district constable, Linton Berry, last week. The 67-year-old inmate said he feared going blind as he was not being afforded the proper diet and medication for his diabetes.
“I see myself dying a slow death,” said Berry in a Sunday Gleaner article last week. He is one of the inmates fighting a legal battle to get adequate healthcare and compensation from the state for breaching his fundamental rights.
Dexter Thompson, director of corporate communication at the Department of Correctional Services, last Wednesday confessed that there is a shortage of medical practitioners and resources at the island’s prisons, but noted that inmates are afforded the best health-care possible.
He dismissed claims that medication was being withheld as further punishment to agonised inmates, and also rebuffed claims that correctional staff were hoarding medication delivered to the prisons.
“There are a lot of missions that visit our correctional centres on a yearly basis, offering healthcare and medication: (there is) free dental care, free eye care,” he said.
“There are medical orderlies at the medical centre and, as soon as a man (inmate) says that his head is hurting him, he gets a notice to see a medical orderly. If it needs to go a step further, there are doctors at the correctional facilities who can refer the inmates to hospitals,” he stressed.
“It is very disingenuous for persons to be making these allegations,” Thompson argued.