Answers still needed for incarcerated mentally ill

Letters to the Editor

Answers still needed for incarcerated mentally ill

Monday, July 13, 2020

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Dear Editor,

Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ) welcomes the intervention of whomever is willing to take action on the unbearable situation of the mentally ill behind bars. We are aware that the Legal Aid Council is now dealing with several of these cases. We, however, are of the view that the Legal Aid Council should have taken action on these cases years ago and that the council needs to be held accountable for its systemic failure in seeking justice for the people it should be serving; particularly in light of the fact that it had, in the past, received funding from the Ministry of Justice specifically to address the cases of mentally ill inmates.

We take note of the case of Abraham Lawrence, the mentally ill St Elizabeth farmer who was, through the intervention of the Legal Aid Council, granted $10,000 bail when he appeared in the St Elizabeth Parish Court recently.

It is a bit puzzling as to why a request for bail was made before the parish judge, rather than a request for Lawrence's immediate and full release. His incarceration for 25 years for smashing the window of a police service vehicle — a crime which, at most, carries a sentence of one year — is a violation of his human rights. The Legal Aid Council should be advocating for Lawrence to be released forthwith and should be providing him with assistance to bring a suit against the Government for his unlawful imprisonment. In its unholy haste to make up for its years of neglect on the cases of mentally ill inmates, the Legal Aid Council should ensure that the quality of the representation which it is providing is not substandard.

We also take note of the fact that the Legal Aid Council has, with the assistance of Attorney Nancy Anderson, filed petitions to the governor general for the release of several mentally ill inmates. We, however, would like to point out that the governor general no longer has the power to release inmates as the concept of the governor general's pleasure no longer exists in law.

In communication received from the Office of the Governor General, Stand Up for Jamaica has learnt that under the now amended Criminal Justice (Administration) Act 2011, inmates are no longer held at the governor general's pleasure, but at the court's pleasure. The amendments did not provide for a transitional period to allow for inmates held at the governor general's pleasure to be automatically transferred to the court's pleasure, after such application a further application can be made to the Supreme Court to have the inmate released. The petition for the release of inmates who were previously held at the governor general's pleasure should therefore be directed to the Court of Appeal.

We urge the Legal Aid Council to engage attorneys who are au fait with the changes in the law so that mentally ill inmates can get representation which is effective and which addresses, in a comprehensive way, the human rights violation they have faced at the hands of the State.

SUFJ continues to encourage increased advocacy and action on the issue of the mentally ill behind bars and hopes that this will bring about a change in how mental illness is treated in the justice system.

Carla Gullotta

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