DCS questions integrity of Stand up for Jamaica research on island's penal facilities.
By Alecia Smith, Senior Staff Reporter @ Jamaica Observer
THE Department of Correctional Services (DCS) is challenging a research paper about the situation within the island's prisons presented by human rights organisation Stand up for Jamaica (SUFJ) on Wednesday, which highlighted several barriers to justice for inmates.
At the launch of the paper, entitled 'Justice for All', held at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Regional Headquarters in St Andrew, Mona, director of medical services at the DCS Dr Donna Royer Powe ripped into the paper, arguing that it did not present an accurate picture of the situation within penal institutions.
"I'm very, very passionate. I've been there 18 years and a lot of people there do a lot of hard work, and I don't like to see things that don't totally represent us and the reality on the ground," she said.
Dr Royer Powe was first out of the blocks in challenging the data after it was presented by researcher Jennifer Jones. Dr Royer Powe took task with the fact that only six people were interviewed for the study.
"I don't think it is fair to the department or to the other 3,000 and something inmates to use this as their voice. Six former inmates represent less than one per cent of the inmate population, so that is not a true reflection of what might be happening," she said.
She also questioned the fact that no time span was given in terms of when these ex-inmates were actually incarcerated and when the interviews were done.
"You are presenting these 'facts' in 2023. I have been with the department for 18 years. So some of these things, I don't know if they happened 20 years ago or 10 years ago but they're not the current situation," she argued.
The paper, which was launched with the support of the European Union, looked in some detail at the experiences of six former inmates — four males aged between 30 to early 50s, and two females, aged 43 and 48.
They were selected by SUFJ for their ability to articulate their thoughts and experiences and as inmates involved in the skills training programmes run and funded by SUFJ.
In addition, two prominent and experienced human rights lawyers were interviewed. The researcher said an attempt was made to interview the director of corrections or a senior representative "but unfortunately this was not possible".
The study pointed out that there are several barriers to accessing justice in Jamaica. These include socio-economic disparities, a strained legal structure, economic obstacles, high legal costs, limited legal aid services and shortage of legal professionals.
The researcher said that for persons in rural areas, the geographic distribution of legal resources also poses difficulties for those individuals. Additionally, the researcher said there is a need for ongoing efforts to enhance legal literacy and awareness among the custodial population, empowering them to navigate the legal system effectively.
Further, Dr Royer Powe drilled into a specific area of the study which focused on prisoners who have no attorney including the late 81-year-old Noel Chambers who died in 2020 after spending 40 years in prison awaiting trial for murder. According to an Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) report, Chambers was initially deemed unfit to plead. He was eventually declared fit to plead, but the case never made it back to court.
She pointed out that after Chambers' death, measures have been put in place to address the issue of mentally ill people who are unfit to plead, including the building of an infirmary in 2021.
"So we have tried to correct things that were highlighted. We knew we had some shortfalls and an infirmary was retrofitted where we have hospital beds, we have now employed psychiatric nursing aides, psychiatric aides, nursing aides on a 24-hour basis. So we've employed about 12 persons who are put on 24-hour shifts, three of them on at a time to provide nursing care for inmates, which we never had before," she said.
Further, in terms of inmates who are kept in the department, who are on the court's pleasure, Dr Royer Powe said it is something she has been trying to address for the past 18 years she has been at the department.
"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 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 and you mentioned if they do not have a lawyer to advocate for them, there's no way they're going to court. So this thing of persons being lost…we can never lose anybody, every day a roster is done. We know exactly that we have 1,700 inmates at Tower Street and if one is missing, nobody is going home, we have to stay and check until we find that one inmate, so we've never lost anybody," she said.
She further noted that in addressing the mental health situation in penal institutions, in 2020, the DCS got approval for 11 psychiatrists.
"We currently have four full time and three sessional. It's not because of lack of advertising, but UWI is not producing the number of psychiatrists we need and then when we get them we don't have the space. So we have a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a doctor fighting for the one office in an institution. So they have to be rotating. We actually have a full-time gynaecologist as well," she said.
In response, executive director for SUFJ Carla Gullotta said the interviews were done in the last six months "so they are not old", arguing that the DCS should not be on the defensive.
"I [don't think] that you need to be on self-defence because this is not something which is accusing DCS. It is something which is asking for DCS to receive better treatment. You have been highlighting how many difficulties you face every day. My question is, can we help? We can. Can we advocate for you? We can. We know that for the correctional officer, it is very difficult sometimes to speak out because he might lose his job."
"So our intention and our willingness is that we have been learning on the ground the difficulties and recognise them and note them. When you say that there are four psychiatrists for 4,000 inmates, is it enough? So can we ask for more? Can we try to require that a new prison is built? Our cry is for better service, not only for the inmate, but also better living conditions for [staff]," she said.