Not another Noel Chambers
A declaration from the prime minister that inmates serving at least 35 years in correctional facilities, without being tried, should be released, and a promise by the chief justice to establish a task force to look at the present law, and procedures relating to individuals in custody with mental illness, have not been enough to stop a local group from heading to court to try to prevent another Noel Chambers case.
The 81-year-old Chambers died in prison in January after spending 40 years without being tried on a murder charge after initially being deemed unfit to plead, but then declared fit to plead on two occasions.
Yesterday, the human rights group Stand up for Jamaica (SUFJ) announced that it is heading to court to seek the release of two inmates who have been in prison for more than 40 years each without being convicted.
“I am very happy that somebody has finally woken up, but my concern, and the reason why we are going to court, is to avoid them staying in prison three more days if they are not supposed to be there.
“I was very pleased to hear the prime minister saying how he was embarrassed, and the chief justice saying there will be some review, but my concern is how long it is going to take. It could be six, seven, eight, nine months and I don’t want them to stay any longer. They should be out tomorrow afternoon,” executive director of SUFJ Carla Gullotta told the Jamaica Observer.
“We have been reading the INDECOM (Independent Commission of Investigations) report and we strongly support the concerns of INDECOM about inmates who have been detained for years, on top of years, and for a time that is longer that it is supposed to be for the crime that they were alleged to have committed,” added Gullotta.
She argued that if someone is deemed mentally ill and not fit to plead they should be in a psychiatric institution and not held in a correctional facility for an indefinite time.
Gullotta said SUFJ has singled out two inmates whose cases require urgent attention.
The first inmate is a 68-year-old man who was charged for murder on October 28, 1970. He was 22 years old when he was detained and has been behind bars for 48 years.
The second inmate was deemed unfit to plead in 1976 after he was charged for two counts of murder. He is currently 61 years old and has been deemed unfit to plead twice by the courts.
“Neither of them has had the benefit of going to court. If somebody is detained for any reason and they need to be punished they also need to have their human rights respected,” said Gullotta.
According to Gullotta, SUFJ has sought the services of human rights attorney Isat Buchanan to file the necessary applications to have the two inmates transferred to the jurisdiction of the court.
Buchanan is also to write to the director of public prosecutions as it regards the intention of the office to continue a case against the two men.
Gullotta said Buchannan will also ask the court to order an immediate psychiatric evaluation of the men and make requests for their compassionate release.
The issue of inmates lost in the prison system after initially deemed unfit to plead was brought by to the front burner last week after INDECOM released its report for the first quarter of this year.
The report, titled “Detained at Pleasure: Institutionalized Human Rights Breaches”, told the story of Chambers, who was incarcerated at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in February 1980, after he was deemed unfit to plead to a murder charge.
Chambers died in January after spending 40 years without being tried. The report noted that at the time of his death Chambers was in a deplorable physical condition.
“His clothing was filthy and his body showed evidence of chronic emaciation. He was covered with what appeared to be vermin bites, live bedbugs and he showed signs of having bed sores,” said the report.
Since then Prime Minister Andrew Holness has expressed regret at the treatment meted out to Chambers and vowed changes.
“This unfortunate situation must result in a complete and comprehensive overview and overhaul of the system to deal with custodees in general and those with underlying mental and physiological conditions,” said Holness during a media briefing last Friday.
“It is my position that no one should be lost in the penal system and certainly, anyone who has served more than 35 years should be considered for release,” added Holness.
On Monday the leadership of the Jamaican judiciary apologised for the treatment meted out to Chambers, and outlined steps being taken by the chief justice to address shortcomings in the system.
In addition to the task force that to be established Sykes announced that “all the cases involving persons in custody with mental illness will be reviewed and appropriate decisions, within the law, will be made.
The review will commence immediately. In this regard, the courts will be working closely with the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
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