Fri | Jul 3, 2020

Editorial | Rotting behind bars

Published:Saturday | June 6, 2020 | 12:17 AM

ALL OF Jamaica has failed Noel Chambers. He was in jail for 40 years but was never tried for his alleged crime.

At the time of his death in January, his clothes were filthy, and he was emaciated and covered with vermin bites. His death at the Tower Street Correctional Facility confirmed the bad reputation of Jamaica’s prison system for shabby treatment meted out to mentally ill inmates.

His case is not unique, and we need not go back too far to find similar cases of persons being detained for decades without facing the courts. ‘Detained at the governor general’s pleasure’ could easily be taken as a euphemism for being ‘lost in the system’, for it turns out to be an indefinite sentence.

Names like Gladstone Ricketts, Delroy McIntosh, Errol Campbell, and Sean Edwards are of cases that have been highlighted since 2003.

Each time there is an exposé, the country gets all riled up. Indeed, after the outrage over Ricketts’ 28-year detention, dozens of inmates were released.

The programme of review and release stalled, however, because many of the inmates had nowhere to go as they were rejected by family members.

But that was clearly not the case with Chambers. His distraught sister, Joyce Davy, recounted to this newspaper the various attempts she made, reaching up to the highest level in the Government, to secure her brother’s release. She got nowhere, and what she got in the end was her brother’s decaying carcass.


Some Jamaicans like to boast that all are equal before the law. The reality is that while we accept this concept in the abstract, some people are more equal. Had Chambers come from an upper-class family or had resources, his relatives would have been able to hurdle their way through the system to secure his release.

Today, there are more than 146 persons with mental illness being held without charge as their mental status prevents them from entering a plea in court. This information was revealed by the head of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), Terrence Williams, earlier this week.

Predictably, this has triggered another bout of hand-wringing and outrage and finger-pointing. We have done a rather poor job of treating the mentally ill in our prisons. It seems like we have done even worse at keeping track of them.

It is impossible to turn back time, but we believe there needs to be urgent action. To begin with, the authorities need to take some clear steps. First, there needs to be constitutional limits on the period that someone can be detained ‘at the governor general’s pleasure’. Then there needs to be urgent reform in the way defendants are processed in the courts. The mentally ill should get treatment consistently and be assessed to determine whether they should be released or placed before the courts.

Chambers et al have been victims of a system that discriminates against mentally ill persons and one that has serious deficiencies in the way it treats them.

Commissioner Williams says he would ascribe blame for this dreadful situation in this order: 60 per cent to the Department of Corrections, 20 per cent to Parliament, and 20 per cent to the courts. In other words, all of Jamaica and the institutions that serve this nation.

We must do better.