Thursday 2 July, 2020

Shock as 81-y-o inmate dies after 40 years in prison without trial

Jamaicans have reacted with a mixture of dismay and horror at the recent death of an 81-year-old inmate who had served 40 years in prison without being tried or convicted for an offence.

Noel Chambers, who had been incarcerated at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre since February 1980, died earlier this year. The case was brought to the media's attention Wednesday by the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), which said the death of Chambers had opened up a wider probe into conditions and procedures at the island's prisons.

Photos also emerged on Twitter that showed the emaciated, insect-bitten body of the 81-year-old man, who seemed to have been malnourished and mistreated while incarcerated even though the official cause of death has been established as a kidney infection. 

One user reacted: "The man is completely skeletal!! this is wickedness!!!!! Justice!!!!". Another said: "That's not real. No man. No."  

Former spokesperson and founding member of Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), Susan Goffe reacted by tweeting: "His condition at the time of his death indicate he had been kept in the most inhumane and horrific conditions. What now, #Jamaica?".

A report published on the INDECOM website said: "His (Chambers) medical record shows that on November 4, 2019, he was examined because he was not eating well, had poor vision, and flu-like symptoms. He was admitted to Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) between November 21 and 28, 2019."

The report continued: "There is a referral on file from Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre for KPH dated December 15, 2019 having shown a history of hypertension, diabetes and cholesterol; however, there is no evidence on file that he was taken to KPH. On the night before his death, he was found unresponsive by a medical orderly, taken to KPH and thereafter was pronounced dead. The cause of death given at the post mortem examination was acute pyelonephritis (a sudden and severe kidney infection)."

At the time of his death, Chambers was in a deplorable physical condition. His clothing was filthy and his body showed evidence of chronic emaciation. He was covered with what appeared to be vermin bites, live bedbugs (‘chink’) and he showed signs of having bed sores, the report detailed.

The report said that on January 27, 2020, the Commission commenced an investigation into the death in custody of Chambers. He was being held at the Governor General’s pleasure, deemed unfit to plead to a charge of murder. Therefore he was being held in custody without being convicted for an offence, INDECOM noted.

The report concluded that the "overall lack of timely and adequate medical attention, in addition to his indefinite incarceration and poor hygiene, highlight serious breaches of his Constitutional rights, the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act (CJAA) and the Correctional Institution Rules".

Following the death of Chambers, the Commission initiated a wider enquiry into conditions under which persons unfit to plead are being held at correctional institutions and the procedures afforded to them whilst held at the Court’s pleasure.

An inmate is detained at “pleasure” (Her Majesty’s Pleasure/ Governor General’s Pleasure/ Court’s Pleasure) in cases where children are found guilty of a capital offence; persons are found unfit to plead by the Court; or persons found by the Court to be guilty of an offence are adjudged by the Court to be suffering from a mental disorder.

The situation is further complicated by the uncertainty as to whether Chambers had ever been convicted of any offence. The report speaks to "some confusion" at the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) regarding whether or not Chambers was convicted.

The Commissioner of Corrections in his report to INDECOM stated that “Noel Chambers was tried and convicted in the Home Circuit Court on February 4, 1980 for the offence of murder. He was deemed unfit to plead and was held at the Governor General’s Pleasure.” 

However, the Commission argued that Chambers could not have been unfit to plead and convicted. His commitment document by the Home Circuit Court has the words ‘guilty of’ struck out and replaced with ‘unfit to plead’, according to INDECOM.

This distinction, the Commission said, is important "as it means the difference between a person, with presumption of innocence, being indefinitely detained as opposed to a convicted person being so detained."

Twice, Chambers received ‘Fitness for Trial Certificates’ from two different psychiatrists. The first was issued for him on October 10, 2003. 

It stated: “this inmate has no history of a mental illness. Repeated mental examinations revealed that there is no mental disorder and he is therefore competent to stand trial. He is not on any medication and is not a risk to himself or anyone at this time”.

The date for the second certificate is apparently 2009.

Despite these certificates being prepared, INDECOM said there is no indication that they were sent to the Court or that Chambers was taken back to court for trial. His medical records further indicated that psychiatrists opined that he was fit to plead in 2007 and 2008. Evidence gathered also indicates that attempts by his family members and a
human rights attorney to have his case heard in Court proved futile. 

In time, his family grew disheartened with the process, the report surmised.

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