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Committee tells health ministry to find appropriate facilities for mentally ill defendants

Senior staff reporter

Friday, October 30, 2020

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The committee commissioned by Chief Justice Bryan Sykes to probe the reasons for the failures leading to hundreds of mentally ill people in conflict with the law being detained in correctional institutions for protracted periods, some as much as five decades with half listed as awaiting trial, says the Ministry of Health and Wellness “needs to take urgent action to designate appropriate facilities” for these defendants.

Chairperson of the committee, Justice Georgiana Fraser, speaking yesterday at the official unveiling of the Mental Health (Offenders) Inquiry Committee Report at the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston, said correctional facilities were never designed to focus on the therapeutic needs of mentally ill defendants and as such, the correctional services have encountered several major challenges in dealing with their housing and care.

According to the report, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) currently houses 300 mentally challenged inmates across three adult correctional institutions with close to half of this number listed as awaiting trial. By law, Bellevue Hospital in Kingston is the designated public psychiatric facility where mentally ill defendants should be detained. However, this responsibility was shifted to the shoulders of the DCS in the 1970s and has not been corrected.

“The Ministry of Health needs to take urgent action to designate appropriate facilities for the mentally disordered defendants. These persons have not yet been to trial and have not been found guilty. Correctional facilities are reserved for persons who are serving time,” Justice Fraser said while noting that the court should also be given the discretion to place these individuals in a court diversion programme.

“We need to have some place other than prison to put these people,” she stated, adding that the committee has further recommended amendments to several provisions in order to effect the changes needed.

The committee, in its major recommendations, said the improvements being made to the DCS do not cure the failure of successive ministers of health to designate any other psychiatric facility.

“It is recommended that urgent action be taken by the Ministry of Health in designating an appropriate facility or facilities suitable for the housing and treatment of the mentally disordered defendant in keeping with the scheme of the existing legislation and international conventions,” the report stated.

Additionally, Justice Fraser said, “The committee has identified that transportation issues, the timely submission of psychiatric review reports, the failure to implement and/or maintain registers, [and] difficulty locating family members are some of the reasons why persons who are mentally disordered end up spending long periods of time in custody”.

Lamenting the shortage of professionals such as psychiatrists in the public sector and the penal system, by extension, Justice Fraser said an unfortunate suite of factors led to why people with mental disorders find themselves indefinitely detained.

Furthermore, Justice Fraser said, “We have found that there is a pressing need for statutory revocation of indefinite detention, we need to do away with indefinite detention”.

The committee, in the meanwhile, said while police officers are typically the first responders in circumstances involving mentally disordered offenders, the intake, review and remand protocols require urgent modification as they are deficient in treating with these individuals.

The chief justice, in commissioning the report, had acknowledged that the court is accountable in part for the fate of defendants who have been incarcerated when found unfit to plead, as well as defendants who do become fit to plead but have not been brought before the courts in a timely way. He mandated that this situation corrected.

The law at present does not allow for the absolute discharge of a mentally disordered defendant unless he/she was tried and found not guilty.

The committee comprised 11 individuals and included representatives from the judiciary, the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights, Bellevue Hospital, the DCS, and the health and wellness ministry.

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