“Jail is where they put the bad people” – that’s what we all learned growing up – but often-times it’s not that simple. Many accused persons are stuck behind prison walls – it seems indefinitely - awaiting trial or a bail hearing – which often never comes – for those who can’t afford an attorney, or pay the bail application fee. Indeed, there are many barriers to freedom for accused persons – who stand before the law innocent until proven guilty – even as they are stuck behind prison walls.

And that’s where a British Human Rights group called the Death Penalty Project comes in. They came to Belize in July 2014 to sort of troubleshoot the penal system, to find out where accused persons were falling between the cracks into legal oblivion.

British Barrister Joseph Middleton compiled a 40 page report called “Behind These Prison Walls” which is meant to serve as a sort of call to action. The report was officially launched today – but the program to rescue some of the forgotten persons is already underway:…

Parvais Jabbar, Co-Executive Director

"We have together with lawyers in Belize some of whom are here today, worked to identify miscarriages of justice and through work with prisoners and prisons. We've highlighted significant failures in the criminal justice system leading to what we would call fundamental human rights violations. This is of particular concern to vulnerable prisoners, such as the mentally ill, young offenders who may not have the resources, or the capacity to seek and protect and enforce their rights."

Eamon Courtenay, President of The Bar

"This report has highlighted the number of persons who require psychiatric attention, who are sick and who ought not to be in prison. Who ought to be is proper medical facility. These people are in prison, there is no place else to put them, even if the court was to order their release –there is no psychiatric home for these people to be house. These are two critical issues and the responsibility and duty falls on the government to address these needs urgently."

Jules Vasquez

"Is the prison being used as a storehouse for society's social ills, a warehouse?"

Joseph Middleton - Author, “Behind The Prison Gates”

"I wouldn't put it that way at all. The prison is having to coup as everybody has to coup, with limited resources. It's got a good management, it's trying to do their best with limited resourced; And they have inherited many problems that history had delivered to them, which is they are restrictions to how people with mental health problems can be dealt with. They're very limited possibilities with dealing with really serious mental ill people, so they're doing what they can."

Jules Vasquez

"What is your most abiding memory of your visit in the prison? What story really jumps out at you saying, wow that's extreme?"

Joseph Middleton

"Well that's very easy, there's a prisoner in the prison who has been there for about 35 years now. He was found not to be fit to stand trail 35 years ago. I'm afraid to say he was pretty much been forgotten. He should have been brought to court every now and then, at least some time then and now, to check if he didn't need to be kept in prison. I'm not saying he ought to be released from prison but the idea you just leave somebody in prison for 35 years because you have no where else to put them, that can't be right. There is an expression lawyers use sometime, shocks the conscience, which we shouldn't use very often, but that does. It shocks the conscience that, that could go wrong and can't be corrected.”

And one of the most pressing issues is the growing number of persons who are locked up on remand – awaiting trial that can take years to come. Under the principle that justice delayed is justice denied, the Chief Justice today underscored the injustice of extended periods of remand:..

Kenneth Benjamin - Chief Justice of Belize

"We note that about 25 percent of those on remand have been on remand for more than 2 years. It is not inescapable that there's been a decline in the public confidence in the legal system."

Jules Vasquez

"Is there a movement in the system to use bail as a punitive measure when it appears that certain persons cannot be successfully prosecuted?"

Eamon Courtenay

"There is no doubt that people who are likely to interfere with the due process of law ought not be on the streets; But the denial of bail is not answer to the criminal justice problem in civilised democracy."

And while that is a broader discussion, a team of two attorneys, Leslie Mendez and Audrey Matura Shepherd are working on a bail programme for juveniles while attorney Priscilla Banner is working on the cases of prisoners who are serving exceedingly long sentences.

It’s pro bono work for the most needy that would make the Attorney General Wilfred Elrington do a double take – after all, he doesn’t think much of the Bar’s spotty record of public service. Today, though, Bar President Eamon Courtenay invited the AG to join in:…

Eamon Courtenay

"We in fact have an obligation under a code of conduct as well as under the general law to assists and to provide legal representation to those who cannot afford it. I think what his has provided us is an excellent opportunity for those attorneys who want to discharge that duty and obligation to help the less privilege in our society. I think that when ever attorneys are called upon to do the work, to do the necessary work to see that justice is done i'm very confident, as a matter of fact that we have answered the call. So to those who criticise us, I say join us. What we need are others to come onboard to help us with the long delays, those with psychiatric issues who need not be there, although there is not an alternative place for them to go.”

To go along with the programme, a criminal justice advisor sponsored by the US and OK governments has been working with government.

Channel 7