ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 20, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 34

Caught up in Angoda mess

Like Jamis, nearly 200 remandees have fallen through the justice system.

Kumudini Hettiarachchi probes their plight... Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Committed and forgotten. This is the plight of the nearly 200 male and female remandees who have been sent to the Angoda Mental Hospital from courts across the country. Many of them have been here long-term and The Sunday Times learns that there is a seven-year-old too who was sent in recently.

How have they fallen into a state of limbo? What has gone wrong? Explaining that some of the remandees committed to Angoda have been around for 30-40 years, just like P.P. Jamis, Mental Hospital Director Dr. Jayan Mendis says Visitors’ Boards which should review their cases every six months have not been active for a long, long time.

Whiling away their lives at the Forensic Psychiatry Unit of the Angoda Mental Hospital.

Jamis who spent 50 years at Angoda was released on bail on January 11, after a chance “discovery”. Numerous letters written by the hospital through the Health Ministry to the Justice Ministry urging the setting up of Visitors’ Boards have gone back and forth with the Justice Ministry claiming that they came under the purview of the Health Ministry, The Sunday Times understands.

The Visitors’ Boards specified under the Mental Health Act should comprise a retired psychiatrist, another psychiatrist and a judge or a representative of the Justice Ministry. These Boards should meet every six months and review the patients' case records and decide on the next step — whether they need to stay longer at the Mental Hospital or whether they should be sent back to court through the prisons for the cases against them to proceed.

Currently, Angoda houses 125 male and 35 female remandee patients. "Of the male patients, six don't even have committal papers while among the females two don't have committals," says Dr. Mendis. These patients are being held in secured sections called the 'Forensic Psychiatry Unit'. Citing several examples, he said a foreigner who worked with them a while ago found a man, who had allegedly committed a minor offence, being at Angoda for over 50 years.

"Once, when I visited the female Forensic Psychiatry Unit, I found a woman in tears," said Dr. Mendis, adding that she had left behind a little one of six years at home. Ironically, the crimes most of the women sent to this unit have allegedly committed are ayale yema or atharaman weema (loitering or being stranded), it is understood.

Detailing the process which leads to people being sent to the Forensic Psychiatry Unit, the Director said when someone allegedly commits a crime, the police usually produce him/her in court, after which the person is remanded and sent to prison as a remandee. If in the police remand, the courthouse or at the prison, the behaviour of a person seems "strange", then a psychiatrist's report is called for and he/she sent to the Mental Hospital. In some other cases, the person's lawyer may plead mental illness as leading to the crime and then too court requests a psychiatrist's report.

Jamis begins life anew

Here, clarifies Dr. Mendis, what is required is a report from a forensic psychiatrist who is trained in this sub-speciality, lamenting that the forensic psychiatrist working at Angoda had retired about eight years ago and they are still awaiting one or two psychiatrists trained in this field.

List at last

The wheels of justice seem to have started turning slowly but surely with the Justice Ministry requesting a list of all remandees at Angoda and also any details available.

The Health Ministry has asked us to compile this list on the request of the Justice Ministry, Dr. Jayan Mendis said

"For the lack of a forensic psychiatrist, when Angoda halted taking in remandees, an Acting Forensic Psychiatrist, Dr. Neil Fernando, was sent here. He is doing good work but we do need our requirement," says Dr. Mendis. Years and years spent at Angoda have made those in the Forensic Psychiatry Unit forget time and place.

They shuffle about in their barred enclosure, sit around on the benches and shout out requests to the dedicated staff working behind locked doors. Most probably, some have even forgotten the alleged crime committed.

Should they be allowed to idle, nay waste their life away? No, it is time to pull out the files, covered with years of dust, stacked in record rooms in courthouses across the country and take action.

Review the records and proceed with the cases…and then release them or give them a fair sentence. This seems to be the mute appeal directed to anyone who looks at them.

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