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Perilous prisons - Correctional facilities most dangerous for sick, mentally ill inmates

Published:Monday | July 13, 2020 | 12:23 AMCorey Robinson/Senior Staff Reporter

More than 400 inmates have been injured in violent altercations inside Jamaica’s prisons since 2018, and more than half of them have had to be taken outside the facilities for emergency medical attention. Many did not survive.

At the same time, data obtained through the Access to Information Act revealed that while violent clashes between inmates are usually the cause of serious injuries and prison deaths, stand-offs between inmates and correctional officers remain concerning as they have resulted in 135 serious injuries to inmates over the two years.

For the said period, 270 inmates were injured in violent clashes with fellow convicts, and according to prison insiders, mentally ill inmates and the sickly usually end up the main targets for both warders and inmates who are often intolerant or indifferent to their conditions.

The information comes as the public awaits the findings of a probe into the death of Noel Chambers, who had been incarcerated for more than 40 years as he was deemed unfit to plead, and the fate of more than 140 other mentally ill inmates, 15 of whom, according to a report by the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), have spent more than three decades in prison without trial.

It also comes as INDECOM probes last month’s vicious attack on elderly mentally ill inmate George Williams, who had been languishing in prison for more than five decades without trial. Williams, 71, suffered injuries to one of his eyes and to his ribs during the attack, allegedly by another mentally ill inmate inside his cell at the St Catherine Adult Correctional Centre. He has since been freed.

Last week, 39-year-old Darron Brown, an inmate at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre, also died. He was reportedly struck by a correctional officer’s regulation baton and fell. His death triggered a hunger strike and protests from prisoners inside the facility.

INDECOM reported last week that Brown brings to 34 prison inmates who have died in custody since 2018 – some murdered, some from natural causes, and some committed suicide.

On Friday, human rights group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) said it was currently pursuing a slew of matters involving inmates who died violently or after being denied fundamental human rights while in prison.

JFJ attorney Natassia Robinson said the practice of placing mentally ill inmates within the general prison population and a general lack of attention to medical needs remain constant contributory factors in almost all of the cases being pursued.

“In most of the cases, what happens is that an inmate will get sick and they take a long time to take them to the hospital or give them any medical attention, so their health deteriorates. It is really when it gets really bad that they are given any medical attention,” she said, noting patients suffering from HIV and other terminal illnesses are worst affected.

“When you leave a mentally ill man in the general population and you are not giving him his medication, you leave him open to his illness spiralling, and, of course, that is not well received by other inmates,” she explained.

Among the cases for which families are seeking compensation through JFJ is that of a 19-year-old schizophrenic murder convict, who was repeatedly abused, leading to his death. Another case is that of an HIV-positive inmate who was not administered medication on time, leading to his death from HIV complications. This was months before he was slated for release after serving a two-year sentence.

“In another case, an inmate who was serving time for a minor offence made repeated complaints about threats and violence from other inmates which were ignored. He was eventually attacked by another inmate, resulting in his skull being smashed. He has been suffering severe mental illness since,” explained Robinson.