Jamaica needs a modern penal system
We note the strong defence of Jamaica’s Department of Correctional Services (DCS) by that organisation’s director of medical services, Dr Donna Royer Powe, in response to a research paper highly critical of conditions within the prison system.
According to our story published Thursday, the study on behalf of the human rights group Stand Up for Jamaica (SUFJ), backed by the European Union, pointed out barriers to accessing justice. These include socio-economic disparities, a strained legal structure, economic obstacles, high legal costs, limited legal aid services, and shortage of legal professionals.
In rural areas, limited legal resources were said to be posing difficulties and there was need to enhance legal literacy and awareness among prisoners to help them navigate the system.
Among other complaints, Dr Royer Powe — who described herself as “very, very passionate” about the issue — felt the study was inadequate in scope since only six former inmates were interviewed. Jamaica’s prison population, she pointed out, is in excess of 3,000.
We are told by our reporter that two experienced human rights lawyers were also interviewed for the research paper.
More to the point perhaps, Dr Royer Powe was clearly annoyed that the study did not take what she considered to be proper account of improvements in the penal system in recent years.
Our reporter tells us that Dr Royer Powe “drilled” into an aspect involving prisoners without attorneys, including the scandalous case of 81-year-old Mr Noel Chambers, believed to be mentally ill, who died in 2020 after 40 years in prison awaiting trial for murder.
She noted that since then some corrective actions have been taken, including the building and staffing of an infirmary. Yet it seems that the challenge which led to Mr Chambers being held without trial for 40 years is still to be resolved.
Says Dr Royer Powe: “The Department of Correctional Services cannot take an inmate to court. Whether we know they’re there 50 years and their case has just come up, we cannot just take them to the court. You must have a date…it is not our problem. It’s a problem in Jamaica in terms of the legal system, and how it is connected,” she said.
“So something is missing in the connection, because we [DCS] do the fitness to plead for the inmates. But even if they’re fit to plead, the psychiatrist can’t walk with them to court because which court is waiting or expecting them…” she added.
Dr Royer Powe pointed to a shortage of expert personnel and a shortage of space. Says she: “[W]e have a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a doctor fighting for the one office in an institution. So they have to be rotating…”
What it all comes down to is that Jamaica’s badly overcrowded penal system is in crisis.
It appears that not only is there the well-established, long-standing, urgent need for modern, well-equipped structures to replace ancient, disgracefully run-down buildings described as maximum security prisons, but also underpinning systems need upgrading.
Not just human rights groups, but all with knowledge of prison conditions in Jamaica, including the Department of Corrections, should join hands in urging the Jamaican Government to act — even if such action doesn’t win votes.