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‘A major error and a disaster’ - Chang exploring six-week fix to hellhouse conditions for mentally ill inmates

Published:Wednesday | June 17, 2020 | 12:09 AMRomario Scott/Gleaner Writer

ANOTHER MENTALLY ill Jamaican will not be allowed to suffer the same fate as Noel Chambers, National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang vowed, as members of parliament hung their heads barely above their shoulders during Tuesday’s sitting.

Chambers died in January, his emaciated body bearing vermin bites, bedbugs, and bedsores, bringing to an ignominious end his 40-year ordeal in prison without trial. The Independent Commission of Investigations said there were close to 150 other such cases in the system.

Chang announced that within six weeks, with the support of several psychiatrists, the Government would be seeking to evaluate inmates found in the correctional services suffering from mental-health issues on whether they are fit to plead.

The minister said that some were likely to be released while others would be placed in infirmaries.

“This will never happen to any Jamaican citizen,” Chang said as he urged the public to hold his ministry accountable in fulfilling that promise.

“The event surrounding Mr Chambers’ death was one of national embarrassment, and all of us as leaders must accept some level of responsibility, and we do not want to get into finger-pointing.”

The national security minister said that the breakdown in the system of referrals and reviews started in 1975 when mentally inmates were not allowed to stay at the Bellevue Hospital. However, the case of George Williams, another inmate who has been imprisoned for five decades, indicates that the rot had set in before then.

Chang said that the theory of treating mentally ill persons in their communities was well conceived, if not effectively implemented.

“But from then, as a graduating medical student, I would have asked what would happen to the people who are mentally ill and incarcerated, because the forensic psychiatric unit was closed with nothing to replace it,” Chang said.

“That’s where the problem started and just ended up in this kind of disaster,” he added.

The prisons were not equipped with psychiatric centres to cater to those who were mentally ill.

Chang urged his colleague parliamentarians to properly examine policies before executing them lest the vulnerable suffer.

“When we take decisions, we have to look at all aspects of it, especially when they relate to the poorer people in the community because it can be done that you execute one part very well … Bellevue population went from 3,400 to under 500. Community mental-health officers were appointed and some good work was done.

“But when there is a major error and a disaster and we have to accept as a country liability and deal with it,” the security minister said.