By Alexis R. Milan
A report published by a London-based NGO entitled “Behind the Prison Gates” identifies many of the problems the Belize prison system faces, including proper care for mental and juvenile inmates.
Joseph Middleton, a human rights lawyer in the UK, was commissioned to undertake the study in Belize over the last year and his findings highlight the inadequacies of the Belize prison system for accommodating the mentally ill, juveniles and providing incentives for long-term inmates.
According to the report, there is a dire shortage of resources available for the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill and there are not sufficient psychiatrists within Belize to provide the right care for such patients.
The report also notes that several mental patients have been housed indefinitely at the Belize Central Prison because there is no other suitable facility for them. These people have been lost in the system because their cases are not being followed up.
Middleton’s report noted that this as a violation of these patients’ human rights.
There is one person who stood trial for manslaughter in 1976 when he was 20 years old and was declared unfit to stand trial. But he has remained in prison without receiving psychiatric evaluation or a review of his continuing detention.
The report also noted that juvenile offenders housed at the Wagner’s Youth Facility, often face lengthy sentences and remand time for misdemeanors because they are unrepresented and do not know their rights.
The report did note that many of the juveniles in detention are there for violent gang-related crimes, including murder and attempted murder. It also noted instances where minors were left to linger in the prison system for offenses that could have been given bail. Among these is a teenager who spent two-weeks on remand for riding a bicycle without lights.
The report noted that while no prisoner has been given the death sentence since 2001, inmates convicted of murder are sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity for parole.
Middleton’s report indicates that these inmates pose considerable problems for the prison because they are without hope.
Murder convicts facing life imprisonment have indicated that they are not motivated to participate in any of the rehabilitation programs because they see them as useless since they have no opportunity to be considered for parole or for a reduced sentence.
Middleton made several recommendations, including one to provide a mechanism to review the condition of mental patients and to establish a proper mental health facility for them. Recommendations were also made to develop programs to offer assistance to juvenile offenders and that minimum sentences be revised.
Middleton recommended that life-sentences also be periodically reviewed and that proper sentencing be ensured in the first place. He noted also that the parole system should be reformed.