Mental health tribunal set up

HARARE - Government has established a mental health tribunal to assess the continued incarceration of mentally challenged patients in prisons.

Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa set up a nine-member Mental Health Review Tribunal on Monday to assess the continued detention of both civilly committed and forensic patients in the mental health system.

There are 100 inmates awaiting assessment. The tribunal is constituted by people with legal and medical qualifications and members of the community.

Parirenyatwa said High Court Judge Felistus Chatukuta will head the tribunal, whose board is constituted with highly trained people in mental health, psychiatric nursing and people living with disabilities and inabilities.

The tribunal will also make determinations and recommendations to the courts or the executive government and also have an advisory role on the decision to release a person from custody, which decision is made by a court.

The tribunal has a very difficult task because it has to balance competing paradigms: the criminal justice paradigm, with the expectation that comes from that paradigm about keeping society safe and keeping dangerous people off the streets, and the health and welfare paradigm, which is about treating people and getting them better.

Parirenyatwa said the move was also meant to ease the congestion at the country’s two prison facilities for those living with mental challenges namely Chikurubi and Mlondolozi.

“It doesn’t mean all 100 will be released but they will be assessed and all those suitable for release will be released,” Parirenyatwa told reporters after inaugurating the board.

“It’s very important for us in the ministry of Health because it stands between the ministry of Justice and the ministry of Health in the sense that they are certain people who are incarcerated in prisons which comes under ministry of Justice and those persons who are incarcerated some of them may have mental problems, they may have committed those crimes because of that.

“So they are constantly reviewed for the mental health issue and they are special boards say at Mlondolozi and at Chikurubi that look specifically at such mentally challenged people who are incarcerated who review them and see how suitable they may be for release in terms of their mental status and in terms of how dangerous they still may be.

“These patients are then recommended by boards by hospitals to this Mental Health Review Board. They have a very delicate and very important role to play.

“If they maybe feel this patient is halfway, they may say, ‘okay, maybe let’s remove him from Mlondolozi and let’s put him at a hospital’ and the hospital designated for that is Ingutsheni Hospital because they have the facilities, they have the appropriate wards for that.”

Zimbabwean legislation recognises the special needs of people with a mental illness involved in the criminal justice system and comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Principles on the Protection of People with a Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care.

Current State laws provide that unsoundness of mind is a defence to a criminal charge. Application of the laws means that some persons charged with criminal offences are judged not fit to enter a plea, or are found not guilty because of mental disorder, and become “forensic patients.” Zimbabwean criminal legislation and other relevant acts, such as bail and sentencing acts, interact with mental health services through the operation of the Mental Health Act.