A case for mental health awareness as a means to access to justice

Aug 10-IPJDDying to be heard: Mental Illness impairs prisoners’ ability to articulate themselves during self-representation in court.

Our prisons are full of troubled minds…

Mental health care and awareness is deemed a luxury even for free citizens. The situation is especially dire for incarcerated persons. Stone walls and iron bars serve as a deterrent to proper mental health care provision, under the guise of proper retribution for past wrongs/offences.

Mental health conditions represent a different level of need altogether when compared with physical health needs among prisoners.

It is in light of the above that humane treatment of incarcerated persons suffering from mental illness is largely uncharted territory. Diagnosis of such ailments is often by untrained prison staff who more often than not fail to properly identify which mental ailment is suffered and subsequently, which proper treatment should ensue.

Some of the psychiatric conditions suffered by inmates include schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and last but most commonly depression. This is as reported by some human rights officers that work within Kituo Cha Sheria’s Prison Justice centres.

The presence of mental illness and access to justice do tie in together in several ways. First and foremost, it impairs their (psychiatric cases) ability to articulate themselves during self representation in court. The vulnerability of their mental frame does not allow them to anticipate or prepare well for such instances. Self representation in court requires a degree of self awareness i.e. during cross examination. Therefore one can only imagine the negative effect an afflicted mind offers in such scenarios.

Secondly, the thought process behind taking certain decisions whilst in the trial process is greatly impaired if one suffers psychiatric ailments. Decisions such as which plea to take during arraignment, plea bargaining, the decision to appeal or seek for judicial review become difficult and open to unwarranted external influence. This almost always leads to a negative outcome if such persons are not sufficiently guided.

Thirdly, such conditions generally deteriorate if left neglected and this is certainly what happens during incarceration or remand detainment.

One would say that some of these conditions indeed do develop specifically because of the inmates’ new found condition behind bars.

A key case in point depression– an internal assessment of the new found situation that the now detained inmate finds themselves in often leads to dark depressive feelings such as hopelessness, despair and discontent. Such feelings   often externally manifest themselves through  dangerous behavioural traits  such as attempts at  suicide, aggression towards fellow inmates and all in all reckless behaviour.

Knowing our own minds is difficult even at the best of times. This is more so for those suffering mental /psychiatric conditions. Assembling this insight should then encourage the appreciation of the need to assist marginalised groups of persons such as inmates and remandees- a group of persons for who mental health care is a remote luxury. Given the strong relation between mental health and criminal behavior, the public health system has a great deal to gain from better mental health treatment among inmates, particularly in reducing the costs associated with high recidivism rates.

It is our hope as Kituo Cha Sheria that during this year’s International Prisoners’ Justice Day, mental health will be an issue that is fully appreciated as a need that should be met. It is only on the basis of this realization that mentally/psychiatrically afflicted inmates will be afforded much needed   relief and sufficient care.

Stand in solidarity in support of prisoners’ human rights today!

By:

Samantha Oswago

AGCP-Kituo Cha Sheria

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Published by

Kituo Cha Sheria

Legal Advice Center

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