'Major win' for mentally ill prisoners

'Major win' for mentally ill prisoners

Man walks free after 21 years in prison without trial for throwing stones

Observer writer

Saturday, July 11, 2020

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — More than 20 years ago, Abraham Lawrence was imprisoned after throwing stones at a group of men. The stones had damaged a police service vehicle in the process.

His only “crime”, other than malicious destruction of property, was that he was deemed mentally ill and therefore unfit to plead before the court.

Legal experts say that in ordinary circumstances, Lawrence would have had a light custodial sentence, if not a suspended sentence.

But, like a number of others deemed mentally ill — including 81-year-old Noel Chambers who died in January after 40 years in prison without trial – Lawrence was “lost” in prison.

Yesterday, shortly after Lawrence walked free at St Elizabeth Parish Court — after being granted bail a week earlier — his lawyer Yushaine Morgan suggested it was a landmark victory in the drive to improve Jamaica's justice system.

“I do consider it [his freedom] a major win for persons who are considered mentally ill because of how much the society would have learnt about how the justice system operates and what ought to take place in circumstances such as this,” Morgan said.

“And so I believe that, [going forward], if mentally ill persons are brought before the court they will not be lost in the system in the same way that Mr Lawrence and so many others have been lost in the system. In that regard, I consider it a major win for [mentally ill] persons,” he said.

Before that Morgan, who has been credited for his activist role in the freeing of Lawrence, told journalists: “I feel good that justice has been afforded to Mr Lawrence after spending in excess of 21 years in custody for an offence which, if he was tried and found guilty, chances are [that] he would have been given a suspended sentence or far less time than he had spent [in prison].”

Senior parish court Judge Ann-Marie Granger freed Lawrence at 10:07 am after reviewing reports from a psychiatrist and probation officer which indicated that “he is not fit to plead”.

“It was a good report… He needs to follow up with the doctor. Take him to the hospital or see a private doctor,” Granger told Lawrence's brother, Llewelyn Lawrence.

She also instructed that the probation officer regularly visit Lawrence at home.

Dressed in a plaid shirt, pants and a pair of sneakers, Lawrence walked free, looking very different from the unkempt figure of a week ago when he had been granted bail after more than 20 years behind bars.

His family members were elated.

“I feel 100 per cent. I feel good… It is a great moment to have him [at home] after he was incarcerated, so I feel happy,” said Llewelyn shortly after his brother's release.

“He is sleeping well and eating three meals a day, so he is well taken care of…Anyone else [who] has any family member…it is good to take care of them, look out for them and seek out for them. Bring them in and take the best care of them,” Llewelyn added.

Silvan Lawrence shared similar sentiments about his brother's release.

“We feel good because we tried everything to get him out of that place because that is a 'hell hole', so we did everything and tried everything to get him out. When I got the call that he is coming out I started calling the [rest of the] family to say, at last, we are going to see our brother,” said Silvan.

Morgan noted that Abraham is “trying to integrate into the society. It is taking a little time, but people have been very supportive. Members of his community have reached out to him and his family, and he is doing well. You can see that he is quite relieved to have his liberty back, but it will take some time before he is really stabilised and can really understand and accept where he is.

“You can see that there is still some amount of confusion, in terms of how much society has changed, since he [has become] a free man,” the attorney said.

Lawrence's case, which attracted national attention and outrage, followed on a report from the Independent Commission of Investigations about the death of Chambers who had spent 40 years in prison without trial.

Lawrence was admitted into the custody of the Department of Correctional Services in 1999 after he was arrested in relation to an altercation during which he allegedly threw stones at a group of men in Huntley Castle district, St Elizabeth. A police service vehicle was damaged during the altercation.

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