Noel Chambers died in December 2019, aged 81-years-old. He was an inmate at the Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in Kingston and suffered for 40 years after being incarcerated without a trial.
Chambers’ case highlights the cruel heights of disregard for basic human rights. The way he was found after his dying breaths escaped his emaciated body has left Jamaicans in a collective state of shock, anger and dismay.
The death has sparked a deep conversation on Twitter, so much so that #NoelChambers has been trending since Wednesday night (June 3), into Thursday.
Forget the part about him being held at the ‘Governor General’s pleasure’, asinine and vexatious as it sounds.
I want to talk about his sentence: there was none. He spent 40 years in prison, that much was confirmed to the Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM) by the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). However, things get less clear in the just-released report.
The Commissioner of Corrections told INDECOM 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.”
For those who don’t know, an inmate like Noel Chambers is detained at “pleasure” (Her Majesty’s Pleasure/ Governor General’s Pleasure/ Court’s Pleasure) under three ‘special circumstances’.
They are namely: children found guilty of a capital offence; persons found unfit to plead by the court; or persons found by the court to be guilty of an offence but are adjudged by said court to be suffering from a mental disorder.
INDECOM found that Chambers’ commitment document from the Home Circuit Court had the words ‘guilty of’ struck out and replaced with ‘unfit to plead’.
“This distinction is important,” INDECOM wrote in its quarterly report, “as it means the difference between a person, with presumption of innocence, being indefinitely detained as opposed to a convicted person being so detained.”
He also received two separate Fitness for Trial certificates from two different psychiatrists in 2003 and 2009. Yet, none made its way to the court to initiate a trial.
INDECOM and many Jamaicans share the same questions:
1. Why was Noel never given the right to trial afforded to him by his constitutional rights as a citizen of Jamaica?
2. Why were no efforts made to hear his case despite repeated attempts by Chambers’ family, medical professionals, and a human rights attorney?
3. One does not become emaciated overnight. Why wasn’t he fed?
4. He was known to have a history of co-morbidities including hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. Why was he not given all the requisite medical attention he deserved?
5. Who is responsible for his squalid living conditions?
6. The man was imprisoned over four decades, so why did successive governments fail Noel in this way?
The scariest part of Chambers’ tragic incarceration and subsequent death? It isn’t an isolated incident.
According to INDECOM’s report, there are 146 mentally ill detainees or so ascribed in Jamaica’s penal system. At least 15 of them have served over 30 years each.
There is no excuse; every single facet of the system failed Noel. He deserved better. He deserves justice.