DPP calls for radical shift in incarceration of the mentally ill

DPP calls for radical shift in incarceration of the mentally ill

Man imprisoned for 50 years without trial set free

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, June 25, 2020

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DIRECTOR of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn has called for a radical shift in the way inmates with mental health issues are incarcerated.

Her comments came the heels of yesterday's decision by a St Catherine Parish Court judge to free George Williams — the mentally ill man, who spent 50 years in prison without a trial — after the prosecution indicated that it would be discontinuing criminal proceedings against him on the basis that he was not fit to plead.

Williams, who was one of seven mentally ill men identified in the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) report who have each spent at least 40 years in prison awaiting trial, was arrested and charged with the murder of a man in July 1970. The then 20-year-old was declared unfit to plead as he was at the time diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Allegations are that Williams threw a stone into the windshield of a car which had a Canadian family aboard. When the car came to a stop, the occupants — James Laurie, who had been driving; his wife Ulrik; and son Ian, who was seated behind — alighted. Williams, it is said, stabbed Ian Laurie to death and injured Ulrik.

He was charged with murder, wounding with intent, and malicious destruction of property.

Williams, now 71, was represented by attorney-at-law Isat Buchanan, who was hired by human rights group Stand Up For Jamaica to seek his release.

Yesterday, it was a jubilant group of relatives who welcomed Williams when he exited the precincts of the St Catherine Parish Court with shouts of “Freedom! Freedom!”

Williams, in response, waved his arms in acknowledgement of his supporters, while himself muttering, “Freedom!”

“After 50 years yuh look good and strong,” one woman remarked.

“We have been looking for this day for a very long time, I have been working on this case from 2004, today I can say thank the Lord my brother is out. The journey will be hard but I am prepared for it, with the help of family and friends we will make Mr George Williams comfortable,” sibling Aldrin Jones told the Jamaica Observer.

Said his lawyer: “This is what I like to call swift justice, and so I am very happy Stand Up For Jamaica reached out to me... to know all of this happened in seven days. In a perfect society you would appreciate that this is what we want for our justice system.”

Meanwhile, DPP Llewellyn said, “It is really a dilemma, and it really cries out for some investment to be made either to retrofit an existing entity under the Department of Corrections or some other which would be a secured facility that can oversee perhaps two or three levels of care that will guarantee reintegration into the community eventually.”

Such a facility, she added, would be similar to those seen in First World countries for mentally challenged individuals who commit criminal acts.

“So you may have a high security area where you may have persons who are violent and you have the care being given to try and take them down to the next level, where with treatment they are a low to moderate risk to members of the society, and then you may have a third level which is the halfway house to reintegrating them back into the community.

“We don't have that in Jamaica, but we can only hope that, in going forward, the powers that be — the policymakers — see the need to try to retrofit some facility, depending on the risk of these individuals, to offer several levels of treatment if it is that they are not able to be brought to a stage where they are fit to plead within a reasonable time so that we can proceed with the criminal proceedings or make a decision to stop the proceedings,” the DPP said.

Yesterday, the DPP said her office had to make several considerations in entering the nolle prosequi to discontinue the criminal proceedings against Williams.

“It is a process, because speaking for the Office of the DPP, we cannot short-cut the process, because once we are aware that it is up for review we must pay due respect to the victims of the crime...and check with the relatives and explain the process to the relatives of the victim, and get their input in terms of how the matter should be disposed of, because the public interest is not only the interest of the accused but the interest of the victim and their relatives. And, it falls to us, having proffered an indictment against the accused, to walk that delicate balance,” she explained.

“Before we could sign off on it we had to check with the Canadian High Commission to ask them to check abroad to see if any of the relatives still existed, or anything like that, because our decision to stop the proceedings has to be done on a transparent basis. Of course, we also had the medical report of Dr Myo Kyaw Oo, who has seen him some 22 times, and in his opinion he was still unfit to plead,” Llewellyn told the Observer.

She added that the medical professional brought by the defence was of the opinion, however, that Williams, whom he had seen only once, was fit to plead.

“But I indicated to the court that, in the circumstances, having looked at those reports, and having questioned them, I went with Dr Oos opinion. It is a balancing of the factors,” she pointed out.

In the meantime, she said the court saw to it that a social enquiry report was done and the home of the relatives who proposed to care for Williams was visited to ensure suitability.

“They made arrangements with Linstead Hospital, the mental health department, to oversee him,” the DPP said.

The DPP explained that the possibility of getting a mentally ill person to the stage at which he/she is fit to be plead within the penal system depends on the level of the psychosis and the cognitive status.

“In order to be fit to plead it means you are able to follow the trial, and you are able to give instructions to your attorney. The level of the psychosis may be so bad that no matter the treatment you might never be fit to plead. So you have to weigh that balance in terms of where they are, how many years they have been there, vis a vis where they would go where they would be properly cared for and not be a danger to society or risk their security being undermined,” Llewellyn noted.

The DPP said the issue has “been exacerbated by the fact that insufficient care and attention, in terms of resources, by successive administrations have failed to recognise that we need to have a facility that caters to the different nuances and the path from total psychosis and a path to being able to either go through the trial process to arrive at guilty or innocent, or go back to being reintegrated within a context where they will be able to continue to be treated”.

Llewellyn was however sure to note that the occasion did not call for the casting of blame in any one direction: “It is a whole host of issues, you cannot look at the problem in a short-sighted way; it is really multifaceted, and it is a constant balance in weighing the interest of the accused, the interest of the victims, and the interest of the community at large,” she said.

For the remaining inmates deemed unfit to plead after several years in prison, she said: “What would be useful for the remaining persons that INDECOM indicated in their report is that, perhaps, a group of lawyers could take the initiative to expedite the matter to utilise process to come before the court and move the court to issue a writ to have them brought before it and then the process could start.”

But, that, too, she said, has its downside.

“We have checked our records and we have seen documentation indicating that from time to time the Department of Corrections does an audit and they try to find relatives. But I think it is a matter of public record that on occasion a lot of persons, whether they are in Bellevue [Hospital] or otherwise, you cannot find the relatives, so the judge would have to enquire into these situations.

“I think, in the final analysis, perhaps it is not helpful to get into a blame game; it is the sort of thing that you have to say that persons who have mental health issues and they are in conflict with the law it is really how it is framed. It is not only mental health issues, but mental health issues which bring them in conflict with the criminal law, that is where you have the dilemma.

“But between the Mental Health Act and the Criminal Justice Administration Act efforts have been made systemically, but it's just that it was not being carried out in the way that it ought to have been,” Llewellyn told the Observer.

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