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Oswald Spence lost 17 years of life without being charged with a crime

Claude Mills,

THE COLD, rotten floor-boards are his bed each night, and his pillow, a rolled up suit of dirty clothes.

In his tiny room, which is bare of furniture, there is only a truck engine that has been converted into a coal stove, an axe, two lumps of wood, a pair of old sneakers and a wooden cricket bat.

There are no window panes in his room on the two large squares that frame his room.

But a dirty sheet makes a pretence at being a curtain at the square which falls immediately over his makeshift bed.

This is the life of Oswald Spence, a 43-year-old schizophrenic who spent 17 years in prison without ever being charged for a crime.

He has lived this way for the past two years since he got out of prison in 2003.

“Rain fall wet him, sun bun him out. We caan talk to ‘Ozzie’. He has not taken his medication in six months. When him ready, him cuss off the whole a we,” May Anderson, Mr. Spence’s niece, said.


When The Gleaner team meets ‘Ozzie’, he is in the grip of a psychotic episode.

As soon as we approach, he gets up and begins to rant. He has what appears to be a knife of some sort in his hand, and he babbles almost deliriously with a kind of impotent anger.

Eventually, his relatives shoo him away, but he refuses to go.

The reporter measures the distance between the ranting man who now has the knife sheathed at his waist, and gives him his best 200-watt everything-is-all right smile.

In the meantime, the camera man retreats prudently in the direction of the parked car.

‘Ozzie’s’ relatives are simple subsistence banana farmers-coffee pickers who have been reeling after the one-two punch of the hurricanes three months ago.

‘Ozzie’ returned to his community of Stanton in Fellowship, Portland, over two years ago.

He had been legally sent to prison in 1986 after an empanelled jury, acting on the advice of a psychiatrist, found that he was unfit to plead.


The laws of Jamaica state that persons who have been charged for an offence must be cognisant of and able to accept responsibility for the offence committed. If they are unable to do so, they are said to be ‘unfit to plead’, and are placed in the care of the Correctional Services, which must see to their mental health.

‘Ozzie’ remained in prison for 17 years, detained at the Governor-General’s pleasure, until the able intervention by the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) secured his release.

“They claimed that he committed a murder and he went to court, and then them carry him go GP, and him neva get out fi 17 years,” ‘Ozzie’s’ brother, Henry Thaxter, said.

… But the struggle goes on
THESE CASES are not unique to Jamaica. Two men, who had been in prison for 18 years, were freed in the United States in the year 2001 after DNA evidence found that they were not guilty.

In February, 2002, a Scottish man was freed on bail pending an appeal for a new trial after serving 27 years in jail for a murder that he says he did not commit.


While Oswald Spence was in jail here, his relatives faced many challenges while trying to attend to his welfare.

“We carried food to him for a while, but after ‘Gilbert’, we just coulden manage it again, and sometimes, we coulden make the trip, and so there was nobody outside checking for him or nothing …”

Since his release, the family has continued to struggle to care for him.

He used to go to the hospital the second Monday of each month for regular check-ups, but it has been several months since his last visit.

“We used to carry him go to the hospital at Port Antonio, but him start to get sick even more, and then he refused to go, and worse, we don’t have any money to even buy the medication ’cause we get hurricane two times straight this year and we can barely even find food to eat,” Ms. Anderson said.


The team attempts to talk to him.

Asked how old he is, he responds: “One million and whole heap.”

Asked about his experiences in prison, Oswald responds: “Prison ah mi place. Nuff evil de in de, and dem tempt me more time. Dem no behave right, back me up inna one box and tek mi money.”

Were you abused during your incarceration?

“Dem gimme some good lick pon me foot. Dem tempt me more time.”

Why do you keep using the word tempt? What does it mean?

“Tempt ah de sweeter word fi a word that mean you feel seh yu can do anything you want to do.”

At this time, the photographer begins to take pictures of his ramshackle residence.

He muses: “Mi have nuff house still ­ house like rice grain. A no really ya so mi live, but mi no waan no picture tek of me or di house. No picture.”

It is at this point that he gets highly agitated, and the news team beats a quick hasty retreat, shaking hands with the family, heading back to Kingston.


Mr. Spence’s story is one of youth interrupted, and potential deferred.

He has lost a large chunk of his life in prison, and day by day, he loses his dignity too.

If you want to help ‘Ozzie’, please call May Anderson at 866-1460.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the time of this interview, our reporter called the Ministry of Health, who sent a team of community mental health officers to administer medicine to him. The family is still trying to cope with the situation.

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