Public defender outlines shabby conditions for detainees in St James SOE

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, November 22, 2018

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PUBLIC Defender Arlene Harrison Henry yesterday outlined shocking details of the situation in St James, under the state of emergency (SOE) in that parish, stating that the manner in which citizens are “scraped up” and detained, and the conditions under which they are held, without charge, trample on their constitutional rights.

“Without a doubt, without a doubt,” Harrison Henry emphasised before the Internal and External Affairs Committee of Parliament yesterday, when asked whether the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) believes any of the conditions found in its investigations into the SOE activities are in breach of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.

Harrison Henry told the committee that residents of St James are being taken off the streets randomly and without legal basis as they go about their business and thrown in with others charged with crimes under the regular justice system, even though they have not been charged.

“Up to October 9th, 3,687 persons, primarily young men, have been detained, since the declaration of the SOE on January 18, 2018. That number increases every day; as we sit here persons are being detained, and these persons are residents of St James, young and old alike, taken up off the road, whether on their way to work, football field, pool party, churches, and funerals, or from their communities, and taken into police custody. They are deprived of their liberty, locked up behind bars at the Freeport Police Station, and kept with persons who are charged in the regular system of criminal justice, having nothing to do with the SOE,” she said.

The public defender said information from the police showed that, up to the ninth of October, 139 of the individuals detained have been charged.

“An outstanding warrant, whether for a traffic matter, family matter or maintenance matter are, strictly speaking, not criminal offences. These persons have breached court orders, [so] if we remove the 40 warrants, the 10 that were charged for cursing bad words, (and) the three for selling in no-vending areas, then it would mean that 76 persons would have been charged (with criminal offences),” she argued.

She said women and children are not spared, with the record up to October 9 showing that at least two women have been locked up at the Cambridge Police Station.

Citing data provided by the police, she said 105 children, up to the age of 17, have been detained, as at October 31, at the Barnett Street Police Station.

Harrison Henry charged that the target of detentions are mainly men from communities such as Rose Heights, Norwood, Granville, Flanker. She pointed out that the bulk of the detainees are young men between the ages of 19 and 25.

She raised concern, that her investigators had found that being without a picture identification is being treated as an offence in and of itself.

“Our concern and we have received complaints to the effect, that police officers and soldiers sometimes take photographs of detainees on their mobile phone. This has implications for the fairness of an identification parade for example,” she said.

She told the House committee that Regulation 30 of the Emergency Powers Act puts no limitation on the length of time data gathered can be held by the police, and provides no safeguard as to how the information is to be kept, or under what circumstances it can be used.

Harrison Henry, at the same time, condemned the harsh conditions under which detainees are held at the Freeport Police Station lock-up, which is the hub of the SOE activities in St James.

Said the public defender: “As you can see, the vast majority of them are taken up — their lives disrupted — processed and released…not even cardboard or newspaper provided for them to sleep on. There is overcrowding, the conditions are appallingly deplorable and shameful. We must remember that the standard that the charter holds us to is one where persons are to be treated humanely, [but] these standards have not been maintained.”

Harrison Henry also showed the committee photographs of uncovered food intended for detainees, kept in the direct proximity to garbage.

She pointed out that the Ministry of Health's own investigations supported the OPD's findings of unhealthy conditions, as there are no hand-washing facilities, and lighting, scabies, rashes, respiratory illnesses, non-functioning toilets, inadequate ventilation, among other health hazards.

She noted that “not surprisingly”, by April 24, there was a major outbreak of gastrointestinal illness at the Freeport Police Station lock-up, where 105 detainees and others had to be treated. “The health team expressed the view, which we accept, that the absence of proper handwashing facilities among cell occupiers resulted in possible faecal oral transmission of disease.”

Harrison Henry also noted complaints of hunger, and the poor diet fed to detainees, which she said included “black tea” (sugar and water) and “dry bread”, and in some instances the absence of meals.

“It is a notorious fact that the Government of Jamaica provides $300 a day per detainee for the provision of three meals. It has been the case for a long time, but (that) doesn't make it right, (and) what is more, when somebody who has been picked up from his community and deprived of his liberty and locked up, he ought not to be asked to endure additional hardship. The other point is that the $300 is applicable to persons who are charged in the regular criminal justice system and persons who are in prison. A detainee is not a person who is a part of the regular criminal justice system, he is not charged, he is not convicted, he is not awaiting trial; he is not a part of the $300 arrangement,” she stated.

The public defender also pointed to poor record keeping by the police, with, for example, 150 names appearing multiple times, 110 of which her office has determined were persons detained more than once, due to the discrepancies among the data.

Harrison Henry said should detainees who feel they have been wronged decide to challenge the State in court, the liability would be insurmountable.

The public defender and her team are slated to appear before the committee again to complete the deliberations on its report.

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