Mentally ill penal systemSunday, June 28, 2020
The recent national scandal regarding the detention of Noel Chambers for 40 years without trial brings to light so many inadequacies of our system.
It also highlights a deep disdain and lack of compassion that our nation has for people with mental illnesses.
It causes me great pain for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I actually agree with the position taken by Jamaicans For Justice in this case. I honestly never thought I would find any common ground with those guys. But what can I say? Who would ever have thought that wearing a mask would be mandatory to enter a bank? Anything is possible.
Okay, but seriously. Regarding Noel Chambers, this recent revelation is a disgrace, not only because it happened to Chambers, but because it has happened to others.
Yes, it has! In 2004, Morris Small was imprisoned for malicious destruction of property, and he remains there today. Now, that's just ridiculous. This is basically a non-custodial offence.
Now, not even a rat gets caught in the same trap twice. How the hell did this happen again?
Let me tell you how.
You first need to think of a group as less than human. Yes, that is what it comes down to. We as a people view prisoners like this. That is why we rejected the United Kingdom's prison deal, because it would mean spending money on what we call “dutty prisoner”. That's how we think of them.
It is not civilised to think like this. I understand it is bred on the background of the suffering we have endured at their hands, but that thought process only dehumanises us and is only practical if we do not plan to let them out.
Secondly, we view 'mad' people as bad people, not sick people. This is followed by ill-treatment, exclusion, and isolation. I use the word 'mad' because using pretty, politically correct words do not change how people think.
This process of isolating them from us extends to isolating them from society. Thus, it leads to their being “held until they are fit to plead”.
That is kind of rubbish law, unless you order treatment to get them to that point.
It starts with fear, shame, and misunderstanding. This is the reality of the mentally challenged.
I was guilty of that thought process until close friends of mine developed mental issues and I actually had conversations with them. There is one in particular that impacted me. This was a colleague I worked with in the police force.
He had a breakdown and was expressing to me his pain at his isolation. I told him that if he stopped saying that he is seeing ministers of Government shooting at each other or flying like bats he would be treated better. He replied to me with the most genuine voice: “I say it because that's what I see.”
I think it was at that point I realised the extent of his illness and his pain. I was also very relieved that my superiors ensured he couldn't get anywhere near a weapon.
That being said, the point I wish to make is that the mentally ill are simply sick people living in their own hell. They need help, not brutality or to be caged like animals or with men who have behaved like one.
Bureaucracy and the Government's habit of micromanaging nothing is also reflected here. I say bureaucracy because Chambers' family tried to help and just got sent around the bend like annoying mosquitoes. It is our Government's culture.
There is also a lack of management in our penal system. Why lacking? Because we have fewer men in custody than a good supermarket has in variety of items. And these men are in separate prisons. So we are looking at a maximum of 4,000 in any penal institution. One would think that certain protocols would exist for this, such as separate computer files on remanded people or alerts that trigger a person to act if someone's matter is reaching nowhere.
I'm sure now Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM) has taken this on it will improve. But why did it have to reach here?
Okay, let me be fair. When the insane kill, what can be done? Let's face it: Chambers was held for murder. A person died! The court cannot just release him onto the streets. Public safety is paramount. There is a victim to consider who has lost his life.
So here is the solution. We need a ward for the criminally insane at Bellevue Hospital. If the inmate or patient never recovers, so be it. But at least he will be in a hospital, not a prison, and won't be a danger to society.
I don't want to hear “we can't” afford it. Not until our ministries start issuing Nissan Tiidas to ministers instead of SUVs must I hear that we don't have enough money to put insane people into treatment instead of prison.
This is another stain on our country and a cause that I think the human rights groups and INDECOM should undertake with the ferocity that I know they are capable of. But, while we are at it, let us throw caution to the wind and buy a bloody computer to track our 10,000 prisoners. It is not too much to ask. Hell, I'll give you the software. It is not even challenging to get it written; it is old, cheap technology.
A wise man once said: “A nation's civilisation can be judged by how it treats its incarcerated.”
We are better than this. Noel Chambers deserved more from us than this.
Let us ensure this disgrace never happens again.
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