More action needed to serve mentally ill prisoners

Letters to the Editor

More action needed to serve mentally ill prisoners

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

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Dear Editor,

Stand Up for Jamaica is encouraged by recent news that the Ministry of National Security is working on a policy on how to treat, care, and house mentally ill persons who are incarcerated but who are unfit to plead. Such a policy is long overdue and should be put into action urgently.

Mentally ill and lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBT) prisoners face unique challenges which complicate an already difficult existence behind bars. These individuals are essentially in a prison within a prison, as they face a double barrier of discrimination and ill-treatment.

Particularly as regards the mentally ill, a comprehensive intervention is needed. The fire which destroyed the George Davis section of the Tower Street correctional facility last year, which housed mentally ill inmates, was a sure sign that drastic action is needed to address the needs of these inmates.

Stand Up for Jamaica has constantly been advocating for the mentally ill to be removed from prison as this is no place for someone who has a verifiable psychiatric condition. Furthermore, the 18 or so inmates who have been living in that section of the prison have not been receiving the level of care that they require. Correctional officers are not equipped to deal with mentally ill patients, and as such they have become 'untouchables' in the correctional system.

Correctional officers have been given a heavy burden to bear as they neither have the proper resources nor training to handle mentally ill inmates. They have and continue to try their best to manage but, with the challenge of a crumbling prison infrastructure, the situation has become untenable.

The mentally ill need to be in an environment in which they can receive the care they need, not in a prison. Not only are they a danger to themselves but also to other inmates and correctional officers. Being placed in an overcrowded, decrepit facility creates a toxic mix that does not facilitate healing and functionality for the mentally ill.

The change required in this respect must begin in the justice system, as no judge who has evidence before him/her which indicates that an accused has a mental illness should be forced to condemn them to life behind bars because of the lack of alternatives.

Stand up for Jamaica is willing and ready to work with the Ministry of National Security on devising solutions, and would welcome any opportunity for engagement with minister of state in the ministry, Rudyard Spencer, on this particular issue.

Carla Gullotta

Executive director

Stand Up for Jamaica

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