June 4, 2020 – Noel Chambers died after spending 40 years in prison without ever standing trial. He was “unfit to plead” – meaning the Court labelled him not mentally fit to say if he was guilty or not guilty of a crime of which he was accused. As such, he was incarcerated “at the Governor General’s pleasure” indefinitely until he was found dead in his cell on January 27, 2020 in filthy clothes, emaciated, covered in insect bites, live bedbugs (“chink”) and bedsores.
On June 3, 2020 the Independent Commission of Investigations, INDECOM published their quarterly report which highlighted their investigation into his death. It revealed that scores of persons imprisoned indefinitely without trial continue to suffer serious human rights violations.
A familiar story
The plight of persons imprisoned for years, sometimes decades, without trial is a well-known problem in Jamaica – as are the inhumane and degrading conditions of Jamaica’s prisons and places of detention.
It is still legal in Jamaica to imprison someone indefinitely at the “pleasure” of the Court or Governor-General. For decades, hundreds have slipped through the cracks and often end up dying in state custody unless human rights practitioners and legal aid lawyers are able to help them. No one is usually accountable.
INDECOM reports that it is aware of 146 such mentally ill inmates presently imprisoned without having been tried. Just last year, the Legal Aid Council reported that it was aware of 313 such persons. Jamaicans for Justice is also aware of several cases and has been approached over the years to assist persons secure their freedom.
Less Talk, More Action.
While our leaders have maintained for decades that they possess the legal authority to indefinitely imprison persons without a criminal trial, this system is unjust. It offends the core principles of human rights and should offend us all.
It has persisted, in part, due to the absence of a credible system of review and accountability for these cases, widespread disregard for persons deprived of liberty throughout the justice system, and for decades, the lack of decisive action by policy-makers to address the issue. Accordingly, Jamaicans for Justice calls upon the government to take genuine action to address this longstanding problem, including:
- Discontinuing the practice of imprisoning persons who are “unfit to plead” and have not stood. Under law, there are four options available to Courts when someone is unfit to plead. Imprisonment should not be one. Moreover, prisons are ill-suited for mental health care, over-crowded and under-resourced.
- Execute an independent review of the system, not conducted by the government entities involved, to identify lasting reforms
- Reviewing all known cases and taking steps to either advance or discontinue them in the interest of justice.
- Publicly disclosing results of any review and providing updates on actions taken, including data on case statuses.