House hears contrasting story on Noel Chambers

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) reported that it tried unsuccessfully to find the relatives of 81-year-old Noel Chambers, who died at Tower Street Correctional Centre in January after 40 years in prison without a trial on a murder charge, Security Minister Dr Horace Chang told the House of Representatives yesterday.

But that account runs counter to the story told to The Gleaner earlier this month by Chambers’ sister, Joyce Davy, who said for more than 30 years she had sought justice for her brother.

Chambers’ shocking story came to light two weeks ago when the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) released its first quarter report for 2020.

The report detailed Chambers’ imprisonment after he was deemed unfit to plead and was locked up at Tower Street in February 1980.

He was reportedly subsequently deemed fit to plead on several other occasions — most recently in 2016 after a psychiatric assessment — but remained buried in the system, never having his day in court.

In the The Gleaner report Chambers’ sister said she tried repeatedly to get help for her brother as she realised that his health was deteriorating.

“I started to write letters. The first one was to the governor general. They answered me back, and they said that I must write to Peter Phillips, because he was minister of security at the time,” the newspaper quoted Davy.

“I wrote a letter to him, Phillips; they don’t answer. I wrote a letter to K D Knight. I remember I went up to a place up at Eureka Road and spoke to a lady who said she going to see what she can do nothing,” Davy told the newspaper.

Yesterday, Chang reported the DCS as saying, up to 2017, Chambers was on a list of individuals to appear in court, but had not.

“I’m still not sure of why he wasn’t allowed to attend,” Dr Chang told the House.

While decrying the failures in the system which led to the injustice suffered by Chambers, and vowing that it must never recur, Dr Chang pointed out that, according to preliminary reports from the correctional services, it had tried to track down the man’s family, but that they had relocated.

That effort, he said, was made in a 2004 under a joint project with the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights in which a special team was assigned to find the relatives of inmates deemed unfit to plead and return them to court.

He explained that in 1986 Chambers made an application to petition the governor general for reprieve, but this did not materialise as, in order to be pardoned, he needed to return to court prior to his application being sent to the governor general for a decision.

“Here is one of the first weaknesses in the system: The court had no record of Mr Chambers at the time… nothing went to court and he was left in the station,” Chang said.

Almost 20 years later in 2000 Chambers’ family sought to have him released on parole, but that attempt, too, came upon a roadblock as, given that he was being held at the pleasure of the governor general, he was not eligible for parole; he needed to have either been convicted or sentenced in order to qualify for pardon.

“He was sitting, waiting on a court date, so his application went nowhere… It appears the entire system failed the gentleman, because he was deemed unfit to plead. It appears there wasn’t even a file on the gentleman’s life, so when he was to go to court nobody could find the file and it just went on and on as a comedy of errors that really put Mr Chambers at risk in a most inhumane way,” Dr Chang asserted.

The DCS said Chambers stopped eating in 2019 and was diagnosed with dementia. He was admitted then discharged from Kingston Public Hospital twice over a period of eight months between 2019 and 2020, and in January was found unresponsive on the floor of the prison hospital dorm.

According to a Government autopsy, the elderly man died of acute kidney infection. Based on lab results he may have also been suffering from prostate cancer, Dr Chang said.

He pointed out that when a person is deemed unfit to plead he/she should be committed to a forensic psychiatric facility, but there is no such facility in the island.

These facilities formerly existed at Bellevue Hospital up to 1975 when it was closed and over 400 psychiatric inmates sent into the penal system, he said.

Dr Chang told the House that Chambers’ death should not be accepted as merely a consequence of a flawed system, and said no Jamaican should suffer this type of injustice in the future.

He said consultations are now underway with the Jamaica Psychiatric Association to engage five psychiatrists to assess people with mental health conditions who come in contact with the justice system.

He also said a forensic psychiatric facility is the ideal long-term solution, and that his ministry, along with the ministries of health and justice, will be working to implement a plan of action for mentally ill inmates, particularly those who are unfit to plead.

Last week, amidst public outcry over Chambers’ incarceration without trial, as well as his physical condition at the time of his death, Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared that inmates serving at least 35 years in prison without being tried should be released.

The chief justice has also promised to set up a task force to examine current legislation and procedures relating to people in custody with mental illnesses.

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